Hershey Felder’s play with music takes us through the life of its eponymous composer in an informative fashion. Felder plays his subject, and his music, as well as narrator, taking us from the artist’s childhood to his legacy. You learn a lot.
Felder’s piano sounds great, his characterisation of the Great Man is conscientious and his Russian accent… let’s say he’s generous with it. The direction from Trevor Hay helps with the atmosphere and the projections used are impressive and accompany the music wonderfully.
My only reservation is that there’s something of the lecture about the whole event. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the one hour and 40 minutes fly by and Felder can hold a stage, while snippets of anecdote and scandal are grabbed at ferociously. But there’s an air of the classroom here, nonetheless.
A real life note raises the stakes. An invitation to perform the play in Russia is well positioned by Felder to add a contemporary commentary on gay rights in Tchaikovsky’s home country. Seeing how the composer lived in fear because of his sexuality, and was blackmailed by his estranged wife, it makes lessons in the show important ones to hear.
This concert show aims to channel the spirit of jazz master Fats Waller with world-class performers honouring a selection of his music in a stylish, contemporary, manner.
The band is The Shakes, five outstanding musicians, and the show is conceived by Michael Mwenso and Michela Marino Lerman. It’s the performances that are the attraction: there’s only the ghost of a story here – snatches of Waller’s life and times read from newspapers, letters and books. To be blunt, the fragments prove a distraction – you learn next to nothing new.
The talent on stage is remarkable, though. Vuyo Sotashe joins Mwenso on vocals, both oozing charisma and cool, making a magnificent duo and blissful sounds. The tap dancing moves by Marino Lerman and Joseph Wiggan set a new benchmark for me, their percussive feet truly integrated into the compositions. On a stage crowded with talent, their personalities shine.
The show has a special treat, too – an appearance from the legendary Lillias White. A Broadway stalwart with awards for roles in Dreamgirls and The Life (both having London revivals right now), White is the real deal. Her numbers – too few of course – are total value, showing a playful flirtatiousness with Squeeze Me and then giving goose bumps with a civil rights number, Black and Blue. It’s an honour to see a performer like White on stage and the chance to do so is not to be missed.
The renamed St James Theatre, now in Lord Lloyd Webber’s portfolio, has the new raison d’être of trying out and refining musicals. And there’s the aim of starting conversations from artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills that warms a blogger’s heart. The first show, by Michael John LaChiusa, is a strong start, but a puzzle, too. Seen on Broadway in 2000, it already seems so cogently formed that there is little new to talk about.
The piece is experimental in that it is based on a poem – by Joseph McClure March – can anyone think of another apart from Cats? musical with such a source? George C Wolfe’s book is structurally audacious and, while the scenario couldn’t be slimmer – someone holds a party, that’s it – the tension ratchets up and up. Both music and lyrics have little time for novices or a discernable eye on commercial success. The milieu here isn’t that familiar to a British audience (jokes, in particular, are a touch obscure) but LaChiusa’s knowledge of American music is obviously profound.
A good portion of the show is a series of introductions. Taking the lead is Queenie, a dancer in Vaudeville, brilliantly portrayed by the legendary Frances Ruffelle, who gives this tart-with-a-heart appropriate depth. Her common law husband, played by John Owen-Jones – also tremendous – ensures the show is not one for coulrophobics. This complicated relationship is the vehicle for exploring obsession and dependence.
Presenting other partygoers gives the rest of the ensemble a chance to shine. Dex Lee is particularly strong as the arch hedonist Jackie, a sophisticate who turns bestial. And, as Queenie’s best friend Victoria Hamilton-Barritt really gets her teeth into a juicy role. It would be hard to sacrifice any of these characters… but maybe more focus might have made the show more enjoyable? Combining high and low life and a mix of ages, races and sexualities has a point but means there’s a lot to handle here. And don’t forget a moral. Like many works of art about libertines, The Wild Party is a warning. When the bootleg gin arrives, complete with bathtub on stage, it would make Hogarth proud.
The venue’s aim as an experimental home is fulfilled for Drew McOnie. While his acclaimed choreography adds enormously to what could be a static affair, his remarkably assured debut as a director is the real story. The piece calls for strong acting and McOnie secures it. There’s a cutting pathos to many of the affairs. And a crazed wish for love, sex, drugs and ambition, with a scary intensity that McOnie doesn’t spare us from.