“Gin, and skin, and sin,” purrs Queenie’s abusive partner, Burrs, as they plan their wild house party in 1920s Manhattan. What follows is two and a half exhilarating hours of sexual deviancy and crime, to a toe-tapping “flapper” score. Based on a long-unpublished 1927 epic poem, Michael John LaChiusa has written the musical’s book, music and lyrics, achieving unnatural synergy across all three levels and resulting in a kind of total (musical) theatre apocalypse; a remarkable achievement.
The minimalist set is drenched in ochre light from exposed Vaudeville-esque lighting rigs, giving way to shadowy blues in the more sombre moments. Stage superstar John Owen Jones’ Burrs, a minstrel-esque clown, is a threatening powerhouse and ticking time bomb over his toxic relationship with blonde bombshell Queenie (a hoarse and vulnerable Frances Ruffelle), and the wild party they host together.
And yet the overwhelming sense from the show is of fun, crucially important in the first act. Electric period dance accompanies lines like “I lust for danger”, resulting in a high, giddy camp that you would never think could turn sour. Sensational vocal performances across the whole ensemble (including grand Broadway dame Donna McKechnie) create a thrilling, voyeuristic slice of pure entertainment. This makes it all the more shocking as the party slowly turns from bad to worse.
Colour-conscious and gender-conscious casting is used to good effect, against the book, including a pair of Vaudeville “brothers”, played as black drag kings. However this bold choice for a period piece didn’t seem to mesh with the anachronistic black playboy banker’s son (Dex Lee), nor the casting of Queenie as white when writer LaChiusa had originally wanted a black actor (which would make far more sense of the repeated line, “she hid who she was with a mask of snow”). Ignore these minor inconsistencies; revel in LaChiusa’s luscious score and lyrics, told through sex and high stakes.
Join the party 13 February – 1 April 2017.