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

BIG Lang theory

K.D. Lang, on her new CD, Lady Gaga and her burgeoning butchness

KD-Lang

BUTCHING IT UP | Lang, nearing 50, is embracing her inner ... daddy?

K.D. Lang is manning up, thanks to the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and other sexpots of pop who shoot whipped cream from their chests and ride disco sticks. The longtime gay activist, who turns 50 in November, made a rebellious decision to boost her butchness, evident in the video for “I Confess,” the lead single from her disc Sing it Loud.

She comes to the Meyerson on Tuesday with her band the Siss Boom Bang, but before the show, she dished about the album’s evolution, why being the first out country star doesn’t matter and her work with Glee.

— Chris Azzopardi

Dallas Voice: Why did you approach Sing it Loud with a fuller sound and, for the first time in 20 years, a band?  Lang: It just seemed to be the right thing to do. It was just what I was feeling. I was working with Joe [Pisapia], writing songs, and it came time to record them and I just felt like the band was the right way to approach it — very live and spontaneous. We put the band together and it was beyond my wildest dreams what transpired.

On “I Confess,” you sing the lyric I’ll be your daddy. How do you think that line would’ve been received had you recorded this song 20 years ago when you first came out? Probably the same as now. I think there’s going to always be people who feel uncomfortable with it and there’s always going to be people who are titillated by it. You just have to know that’s going to be the case for a long time.

Would you say you’re embracing your butchness more than you used to? Yeah, this music really asks for it. I also think that the aesthetic nature of today’s music, with people like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry — not that it’s new, it certainly isn’t; I know better than that — is being very exaggerated I thought, I can exaggerate, too!

What do you make of the way the music business has shifted in the way it sells music? I think it’s boring because everything is so overexposed. But it’s fine; it is what it is. In terms of music, there is always going to be a place for someone who can sing and someone who can communicate with an audience.

Did you ever feel pressure to conform in your career? That would depend on what I wanted to reap from my music. I’ve always been quite sure that I wanted to have a more artistic career and a career of longevity, so in that respect, no. I’ve made decisions that have nurtured my art rather than my public awareness or my celebrity. That’s been self-determined. So no, I never felt the pressure.

If you hadn’t come out, how do you imagine your life and career now? I can’t imagine, because I was always out and coming out wasn’t really a big deal for me. But it certainly made things easier. I can’t imagine what it would be like, but at the same time it’s definitely made my life easier just because it kind of stripped away the question marks in the audience’s minds. It took away any pretense or question.

There was a big hoopla when Chely Wright came out as the first gay country star, because some argued that you beat her to it. What did you think about all that? I don’t know who Chely Wright is, but I don’t care. I mean, to a whole generation of people who know Chely Wright, they probably don’t know who I am. So to them it is the first country star to come out. I don’t really care who’s the first, who’s the last, because before me there were a lot of people that helped get me to a place to feel confident and comfortable with coming out.

Last year you lent your voice to a song on a Glee soundtrack. Would you ever do the show? I don’t really watch Glee, but I know it’s very popular and gay-friendly, which is great. And Jane Lynch is hilarious! If they asked me I would consider it, but I’m really happy that I could be a part of something that’s supportive and promotes alternative and varying lifestyles.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

SEEN & heard

The abstract art of Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin correlates with his music more than he lets on

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ROCK IT, MAN | Already a legendary songwriter, Taupin (pictured with Elvis Costello, right) brings his abstract art, background, to Dallas.

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

To be a star in the rock universe without really ever being a rock star is a feat unto itself. It is a position Bernie Taupin knows well. Famous more for his collabs with Sir Elton John as well as other high-profile musicians, Taupin is easily one of music’s most legendary lyricists: “Candle in the Wind,” “Rocket Man,” “Levon” are giants in the rock ‘n’ roll vernacular.

But Taupin’s creativity doesn’t end with hit after lyrical hit. With Dallas on his itinerary, Taupin comes here as a different kind of artist.

“What I’ve got going keeps me pretty busy,” he says in his slightly gruff British accent. “I’m just cracking 60 and I’m pretty satisfied with things.”

To his stellar track record in contemporary music, Taupin adds the title painter. His abstracts have received critical acclaim on par with his songs, and Dallas’ Wisby Smith Fine Art gallery will feature Beyond Words, a collection of Taupin’s visual art.

At times, Taupin sounds fickle about his own work. Although he likens the creative processes of songwriting to painting, he prefers now to discuss just his art … even though one might not exist without the other.

“Painting is just a natural extension in creation from writing songs,” he says. “My songs don’t influence my paintings, but it is another step.”

Like his abstracts, Taupin does say that his work process has its origins in the songs he wrote — mostly those in which he and Elton John might have been trying to say something in lyrics without saying something. John is much more out now than he was 40 years ago. In his rock heyday, John almost married a woman and then came out as bi. There has always been speculation that many of John’s songs had hidden or double meanings. Taupin rather likes that — even now.

“I like people to use their imagination,” he says. “Things like that just happen. You can’t over-think things. It’s just what comes out. There are a lot of similarities between songwriting and painting and a lot of the same things are going on. They’re both quite lyrical. It’s par for the course that we might cloak some lyrics but it’s just more interesting and people can come up with their own interpretation.”

Taupin says he has always doodled or drawn, but it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that the spark to truly create on canvas flared. At a ranch in Southern California, he found his Walden Pond. With all the travel that comes with being a music icon, he could finally settle in and let his inspiration flourish.

“The locale here is very inspiring and pretty spectacular, which all just lends itself to any sense of imagination,” he boasts. “How can you not be inspired by these surroundings? The facilities here give me much more opportunity to create. The space is great and it all really came together at the right time.”

Despite a seemingly endless supply of creative energy, even Taupin admits to having dry spells. As he explains, it’s a common thing for any artist, although it’s not the same for his music and his art. When it comes to writing a song, he’s far more driven by the business of it.

“As far as writing, I work when I need to work. When I’m preparing an album, which may be every couple of years,” he says. “I’m not writing all the time. My painting is far more consistent and I’ve been working a lot recently because I’ve been motivated by the series of shows coming up. But I’m also not painting all the time either.”

When he shows in Dallas, Taupin expects viewers to take away their own thoughts on his work. There is no wrong answer to the questions his art raises. But is it fair — when he asks audiences to eschew labels or titles — that he names his work?

“I’d much rather have a title. Untitleds are rather dull,” he says. “My titles at least give a viewer a starting point to come up with their own conclusion. The one thing I don’t like doing is explaining a song or my work. Like some of my songs, paintings need to be thought about. It’s not up to me put ideas in their heads, but to interest the viewer and ask them to use their mind.”

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

—  Kevin Thomas