Union Theatre, London – until 7 July 2018
What happens if you throw together 23 songs, five musical theatre performers, a pianist, and tons of colour? The answer is It’s Only Life, a musical revue based on several ‘orphan songs’ (John Bucchino’s own description) interwoven to create a fun production about love and life.
With the American songwriter’s work having been performed by numerous stars of stage and screen, including Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli and Art Garfunkel, It’s Only Life was assembled in 2004 to tie this collection of music and lyrics together within a framework that provides context and a semblance of narrative.
The result is a firmly entertaining showcase put on through excellent casting and an outstanding ensemble. The cast of five has a genuine chemistry that shines through a polished veneer. Tight choreography and blended vocals are coupled well with complementary set and lighting design. As the cast weaves in and out of different characters and dynamics, emotions and energy levels, with each number bringing a distinct identity to the stage, the Union Theatre’s compact railway arch location amplifies the sense of intimacy created by the score.
Under Nick Barstow’s direction, the music is beautifully delivered, but more impressive is his ability to deliver on the piano throughout the performance with increasing fervour and bite. The score is challenging, and the influence of Sondheim (cited on several occasions throughout) is more than evident. Bucchino’s compositions are demanding, fast-paced and smart, holding the performers to a high level of accountability, which they achieve admirably.
Yet it takes a while to get going. While the first half is enjoyable, the quality and energy of delivery is noticeably supercharged after the interval, bringing the production to a roaring crescendo. The most memorable numbers either have heart or humour – or in some cases both – such as ‘On My Bedside Table’ (Will Carey), ‘This Moment’ (Sammy Graham) and ‘I’ve Learned To Let Things Go’ (Jennifer Harding).
It’s all very sweet, if not just a tad too sickly towards the end, when the message about simply enjoying life gets laid on a bit too enthusiastically, free of any subtleties. There’s also a bit of audience participation which, despite its best intentions, feels slightly disjointed and overall unnecessary.
Nonetheless, this remains a delightfully poignant evening that imbues a buoyancy and zest for life.