It’s been ten years since John Bucchio’s musical revue It’s Only Life premiered off-Broadway, and now a decade later, the UK gets its premiere at The Union Theatre. This collection of “orphan songs”, remnants of Bucchio’s vast song writing career, was originally conceived by Daisy Prince, who gave them a common thread without the hindrance of a plot, while still allowing individual production companies to make their own mark.
The collection could easily be interpreted as autobiographical, the very first song ‘The Artist at 40’, describes how the composer is so busy making art, they are unable to enjoy the fruits of their labour. We as the audience have no such difficulty, because as themes of love, fear and regret are played out we are able to truly appreciate It’s Only Life for the art form it is.
While the songs each stand individually, they paint a picture of a bigger life. Interactions with a therapist are explored in ‘Painting My Kitchen’, while a mutual love of Sondheim (Passion, of course) sees a couple meet at a bar in ‘Playbill’.
The set and opening numbers reminded me of a children’s TV show, all white with bold bursts of primary pastels, the performers themselves could easily have been the presenters, youthful and smiling in casual dress. Director, Tanya Azevedo has made it feel welcoming and inclusive, as if the fourth wall has evaporated, and as brightly coloured props make unexpected appearances from nooks within the two storey set, you realise how clearly they complement the mix of songs, from comedy to ballad.
A cast of five essentially ‘play’ John, and with the exception of some ensemble numbers, almost every song and transition is a solo, allowing each of the talented performers ample opportunity to show us what they’ve got. Each of them has a particular stand out moment, for Noel Sullivan it’s ‘Grateful’, a beautifully tender ballad that allows you to drown in Sullivan’s rich vocals, while Jennifer Harding gives a stunning performance with ‘Sweet Dreams’ which is accompanied by a ballet, demonstrating William Whelton’s diverse choreography.
Jordan Shaw delivers an emotional punch in ‘If I Ever Say I’m Over You’, while Sammy Graham delights the audience with ‘A Powerful Man’. Making a stunning professional debut, Will Carey is a revelation, from the comedic ‘On My Bedside Table’ to the inspirational ‘Taking the Wheel’ every one of his performances is a joy to behold.
What’s easy to forget with It’s Only Life is that the entire score is played on the piano, and wonderfully so in this production by Nick Barstow. These aren’t easy arrangements to play, and Barstow is truly a maestro at work which did not go unnoticed by the audience. Alongside the vocal performances this would make a magical cast recording.
There’s a song early in the first act named ‘That Smile’, I realised half way through that song just how broadly I was actually smiling, utterly enchanted by the delightful score, and I continued smiling for the rest of the evening. Bucchino’s overriding message of positivity and hope which emerges from It’s Only Life could be viewed as verging on the overly saccharine by a cynic, but it’s far more rewarding to view this as a musical revue which warms the heart and soothes soul.