Cult classic film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, staring film icons such as Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze, has finally been adapted for the theatre stage by the original writer and director Douglas Carter Beane. To Wong Foo The Musical is receiving its world premiere at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre.
Our story begins at the Pyramid Club in New York where a whole host of drag queens are competing for the title of Drag Queen Of The Year in which the winner receives a trip to Hollywood. In an unusual turn of events we have a tie between Vida Boheme (Peter Caulfield) and Noxeema Jackson (Gregory Haney). Back in the dressing room, Vida sees a young Chi Chi Rodriquez (Pablo Goméz Jones) visibly emotional at not winning the competition. Wanting to take her under her wing the three queens embark on an epic adventure to Hollywood. As is predictable in these types of plots, unexpected twists and turns mean they only make it to Syndersville, a stereotypical American village not familiar with tolerance and acceptance of others.
The show opener is the glitz and glamour you would expect to see with pretty much the entire cast competing in the drag competition performing ‘Feel The Light’ striking in every way from the costume design by Gregory Gale to the way the lighting hits these stunning outfits (Lighting design by Jack Weir). Weir has used blackouts to great affect similar to the 90’s sitcom fade outs you would see moving into the next scene. Katie Lias, set designer, has used all the available space to transport us back in time and makes full use the stage in each scene supported by clever and clear video projection by Dan Light.
The script and plot are thin on the ground in terms of depth and substance and is everything you would expect it to be. Whilst it doesn’t have the heart of a ‘Kinky Boots’ it is reminiscent of ‘Priscilla Queen Of The Desert’. Themes such as domestic abuse are forced in the second act and briefly looked over in what felt like an unnecessary choice to add further diversity. Whilst it may not be the moving and deep show some may want to see, you can’t deny that this is a fun, joyous night out in the theatre. Clever one liners and delivery by the cast constantly have the audience in hilarity and the script is jam packed with comedy.
The score by Lewis Flynn compliments the story well but is lacking one standout number that will stick with the audience as they leave the theatre. ‘It Will Be Beautiful’ is perhaps the performance that comes closest to this, encouraging the audience to clap along to this uplifting show closer. Genres range from country folk to disco pop and ensures there is something for everyone. At times the pacing of the story is difficult to follow as the story is partly sung through, dipping back into spoken dialogue and back into song, and is not initially clear if it’s the same song or a different one.
Our leading queens truly are the backbone of this production. Caulfield as Boheme leads the show with wit and sass including when things may have not been going as the script suggested using unsuspecting improvisation. Caulfield truly commands the stage and all eyes are on them in every scene they are on. Haney’s performance as Noxeema Jackson is effortless. Drawing on their extensive experience on Broadway and The West End, the character is shady and sarcastic, cold but loveable and the relationship between the actors couldn’t have been anymore perfect. The comedic timing particularly by Jackson delighted audiences throughout.
The character development of Chi Chi Rodriquez, played by Pablo Goméz Jones, doesn’t appear fully realised and lacked a distinct arc. Young and inexperienced Rodriquez is initially dramatic and perhaps over sentimental that she didn’t win the pageant due to never winning anything. She then heads to Hollywood via Syndersville and is eventually declared ‘a queen’ for no obvious and apparent reason. Gómez Jones’ rapport with Syndersville’s residents in the opening of act two draws particular laughs from the audience, however the character would have benefited from a deeper story and a greater contrast of acting style throughout. The comedy throughout the piece doesn’t lend to an emotional connection with this character so when the story wraps up we are left ambivalent.
At a time when Drag Bans in America are constantly making the news it is important that stories like this continue to be told. Nearly 30 years after the initial film was released, the musical highlights that although times have changed, a lot of issues we have previously faced are still prevalent today. Hope Mill Theatre are innovators in new theatre and whilst they are struggling financially I would urge everyone to take a visit and support this venue to ensure we continue to experience pieces of theatre like this. Whilst there are flaws, To Wong Foo is a light hearted hilarious night on the town reminding us of the importance of inclusivity and equality. It’s hard not to be dazzled by the sheer joy this production evokes. Camp comedy at its heart. To Wong Foo, thank you.
To Wong Foo runs at Hope Mill Theatre until 17th December. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.
AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review