BWW Reviews: LIFE OF THE PARTY, Menier Chocolate Factory, May 30 2014
Life of the Party is, like the career of its star and honoree, Andrew Lippa, a fascinating melange of first class musical theatre at best and ill-advised ventures at worst. Billed as 'a celebration of the songs of Andrew Lippa', David Babani's construction is caught halfway between Lippa's concert at the St. James last November and brand new revue; the composer takes on compering duties to guide the audience through the evening, but with segments of his shows performed 'as was', including props, costumes and choreography. The result tends to be somewhat muddled, though no less enjoyable for that.
Featuring excerpts from Big Fish, The Addams Family, The Wild Party and more, Lippa's music and (majority his) lyrics are delivered by a cast of the first rank. Damian Humbley demonstrates once again that his is one of the most impressive voices on the London musical theatre stage, tackling the manic 'Let Me Drown' and 'Christ Almighty' from a promising new musical in development with equal panache. Summer Strallen has never been better, showing similar versatility with turns including a vampish Cinderella, a lovestruck Wednesday Addams and The Wild Party's desperate hostess, Queenie. Indeed, Lippa acquits himself admirably as a performer - 'You Are Here' from his recent Harvey Milk oratorio is a highlight.
Just as impressive are the band led by Andy Massey: the string trio of Debs White, Rachel Robson and Hannah Ashenden handles the many styles and demands of the evening with aplomb.
However, it is Caroline O'Connor who most astonishes, with her show-stopping rendition of 'An Old-Fashioned Love Story' raising the roof, the audience cheering and stamping long after she leaves the stage. Equally, the most moving moment of the evening comes with O'Connor's performance of 'Love Somebody Now', a stand-alone number that does not belong to a particular show but in which O'Connor finds a real honesty and emotional depth.
There are occasionally baffling moments of direction. The songs swing from tightly choreographed and boldly staged - a Babani-helmed production of The Wild Party would be a marvel - to static, wooden episodes, with the energetic performers forced to stand still, arms rigidly by their sides. Some songs are given life and context appropriately (the John and Jen segment) while others are laden with excessive props and costumes that border on the absurd (The Addams Family, Big Fish).
The real problem with Life of the Party lies neither in its performers nor in its material. Whatever his weakness in composing scores as entire works, Lippa is a gifted songwriter, and this format allows that skill to be showcased. However, in the show's attempt to create a more formalised revue structure, it falls down. The uneven approach does nobody any favours: we enjoy Lippa as a delightful and witty host, but are unable to engage with the other performers on the same level as they are required to flit between characters and shows with no explanation. Each individual musical is presented in its own fully-realised bubble, but there is no thematic link between each section. We learn next to nothing about Lippa as a man or as a writer; the pieces are presented in a random order with no discernible progression or development. The slightly indulgent ending, featuring songs from new musical The Man in the Ceiling and an encore from The Addams Family seems to be a retroactive attempt to draw meaning from the preceding two hours, but this is unnecessary.
Structural issues aside, Life of the Party is a rollicking evening, showcasing Andrew Lippa as a singularly talented theatre songwriter. His work and a supremely talented cast make the show a delight for existing fans of the composer and for those neophytes ready to be converted.