Grow up!

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

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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

Sitcomy and shrill, ‘Cheaters’ revives the ’80s with failed farce

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As someone over 40 myself, my suspicions are raised when a 22-year-old writes a play that purports to parse the mindsets and pecadilloes of middle-aged couples. But Michael Jacobs — who has since created such execrable sitcom dreck as My Two Dads and Charles in Charge — couldn’t even rent a car when his play Cheaters had a justifiably brief run on Broadway in 1978. It’s about two sets of bickering, faithless 50-somethings and a young couple (Danielle Pickard and Andrews Cope, above) who are trying to decide whether to marry. The plot probably says more about Jacobs’ issues with commitment than it does the titular marrieds.

For its current production, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas has updated the timeline to the mid-’80s — the height of miserable sitcomania and intrusive laugh-tracks —as if to justify how shrill and unpleasant all the characters are: It’s the Reagan Era, after all, you can’t expect people to behave civilly. Aside from that, all this change means is that we have to endure stylized scene changes where chambermaids re-set the hotel room while listening to Love Connection and The Facts of Life drone on the TV. It was impossible to stomach that detritus on its first run; who wants to endure it as a captive?

There are more coincidences — and non-coincidences — than even the most forgiving of audiences will likely accede to willingly. Each cheating pair is the parent to one of the young lovers; even though they have lived together for two years, none of their folks have ever met before the awkward family dinner where all secret infidelities are revealed. It’s meant to be a French farce, though it replaces nuance and wordplay with mugging and shouting: Call it La Cage aux Fail.

It might be tolerable if anyone onstage were remotely likable; alas, the women are all shrill, the men controlling and angry. And they are all clad in ugly costumes, the worst of which is Marcia Carroll saddled with wearing a flight suit that makes her look like something that would get you booted off Project Runway. Ted Wold at least has his signature snarky attitude, which allows him to spit out the contrived dialogue with an inherent sense of humor, though that’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Greenville Center for the Arts,
5601 Sears St. Through Sept. 24.
ContemporaryTheatreofDallas .com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 9, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas