Grow up!

‘It’s Only Life’ is a cabaret, ol’ chum

STAGE

SING A SONG | The cast of ‘It’s Only Life’ brings actors’ ideas to a delightful musical revue.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The DMA isn’t the only Dallas institution that has Jean Paul Gaultier on its mind: Over at Theatre Too, Jeffrey Schmidt’s set for the song cycle It’s Only Life is dominated by a wall of coned newspaper that looks like it could put out a lot of eyes. If there’s some metaphorical meaning to this design, it escapes me. This is, after all, a revue of sprightly songs by the composer John Bucchino, not a book musical telling a story that needs to be interpreted visually.

That’s its blessing and its curse, though mostly a blessing. Broadway songs (and country music) are about story; pop songs are vignettes of emotional abstraction, capturing a moment, not a tale. The versatility of cabaret that is it brings a storyteller’s approach to pop — it’s like acting in a vacuum, and writing songs that support that ethic is a Bucchino specialty.

But the cast here is almost too good, creating tiny characters for three minutes, only to abandon them for the next one.  But there’s no follow-through — there’s not meant to be. On novelty songs like “Painting My Kitchen” and “A Contact High,” Bucchino’s Sondheim-esque wordplay and the lightning-fast emotional modulations by Seth Grugle and Angel Velasco, respectively, draw us instantly into a story, but sometimes a plot seems to be shoehorning its way where none belongs.

All that is really required to enjoy it, though, is a change in mindset: Think of It’s Only Life not as a play, or even as a revue, but as a concert loosely orbiting around the idea of finally growing up. It starts with “The Artist at 40,” a confessional worrisong about the creative process that sets the tone for what follows: I’m so busy making art / That there’s no time to live / The life the art is imitating is the wise refrain.

After that, it’s just a question of immersing yourself is Bucchino’s playfully syncopated melodies that insert luscious phrases and unexpected lyrical bombs, delivered wonderfully by the cast of five. Darius-Anthony Robinson has a great R&B pop voice that’s actually suited to the revue format of playlets in song form, especially on the centerpiece solo “Grateful;’ then, with a quick turn, his comic energy serves him on songs like “A Powerful Man.” Erica Harte has a quirky Broadway style that always catches the ear, and Jennifer North shines on torch songs.

It’s Only Life is a regrettably generic name for a musical of distinctive pleasures. Then again, don’t think of it as a musical; think of it as an evening of song-filled entertainment.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 18, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas