BWW Review: The Theatre High of hearing John Bucchino play IT'S ONLY LIFE
I'm sorry if you didn't see Art-In-Relation's production of IT'S ONLY LIFE this past weekend because you missed hearing a remarkable musician play his own magnificent songs in a tiny 50-seat theater. To have that luxury is a rare occurrence, even for a city like Los Angeles. It was a breathtaking evening with the composer at the piano expressing, as only one who has written a song truly can, the most intimate nuances of a piece. For a lover of music, it was transcendent.
John Bucchino writes like no other. The award-winning composer has been called a genius by most who have worked with him. Singers like Judy Collins, Audra McDonald, Barbara Cook, and Art Garfunkel clamor to record his material and he has performed in some the greatest halls in the world, from the Hollywood Bowl to the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall to the White House.
What I know is that he has an unparalleled ability to tap into the human condition and tell a story with a song that will bring you to your knees. It may be a moment of unencumbered hope, deep longing, or lingering regret, but it is crystallized in an emotional space that only music can occupy. When paired with a John Bucchino lyric, it is pure magic.
In this version of IT'S ONLY LIFE, the six actors who undertake the journey present a mixed result, hindered at times by a directorial vision (Alan Palmer) that either punctuates the obvious or leaves the actors up to their own devices. It doesn't have a linear plot, as written, and that is the inherent beauty of the piece. The show's potential to move the listener comes from the mindfulness of the actors as they consider the cost of their art, what they've sacrificed to succeed, and how they will navigate the ever-changing waters ahead. Regardless of whether or not you are an artist, these questions are the stuff of life and the same ones all seekers wrestle with at some point along the journey.
But to stage the climactic "Taking The Wheel" while driving a car and then have the actor throw his hands up in excitement so his passenger must take the wheel to keep them from crashing completely ignores the metaphor. The song is a joyful expression of taking charge of one's life but here it is played for a cheap laugh that sorely misses the point.
Group songs are also hit and miss. There are a number of times the cast stands stationary and sings, not necessarily a bad thing if you ignore some of the awkward positions, but the lack of focus is distracting. One actor tries repeatedly to make eye contact with the audience, several look to their fellow actors to connect, while others have generic musical theatre smiles pasted on their faces as they gaze vacantly over the audience's heads.
It is a reminder that these aren't the kind of songs you can simply pick up and sing because you think they're beautiful. You need to live with them, or at least have some life experience under your belt, to even begin to communicate the subtleties, let alone have the vocal chops to do them justice.
Only Jill Marie Burke fully cracks open a vulnerable heart to expose all the color and richness they deserve. She belts out '80s classics by day as the lead singer of a Pat Benatar tribute band but, in this cycle of 22 songs - missing is "Painting My Kitchen" - her deep connection to both lyric and melody on "Unexpressed," "If I Ever Say I'm Over You" and the bluesy "What You Need" will be your reason to see IT'S ONLY LIFE once the composer is no longer at the piano.
The rest of the singers fare better on the choral numbers than on their solos where a shortage of emotional depth and amateurish acting can't escape notice. As a group, intonation improves and the lush harmonies begin to soar under the musical direction of Jonas Sills and VanNessa Hulme.
Still, I left the evening on a theatre high after hearing songs I dearly love played by the very composer who wrote them. That is something I will never forget.