Julian Eaves reviews It’s Only Life a review featuring the songs of John Bucchino now playing at the Union Theatre.
John Bucchino is an American songwriter little known over here, and from the evidence on display in this compilation of 23 of his songs, it’s fairly easy to see why. He demonstrates all the virtues – and vices – of US musical theatre writing that are least appreciated over here, while being possessed of few of the strengths that British audiences most admire in that genre. Undeterred, Katy Lipson’s Aria Entertainment brings this montage of his oeuvre to the intimate Union Theatre, perfectly timed to meet demand for a light-hearted early summer feel-good fest, free from any awkward references to Brexit, the World Cup, or anything – almost – that relates to the contemporary world. We may as well be back in Greenwich Village, c. 1958: nothing much seems to have changed since then in the world view on offer in this revue. Originally brought to the stage by Daisy Prince – daughter of the legendary Harold – this could easily have been spawned a generation or two back in time; possibly, since her credit remains on the current programme, we might surmise that licensing demands make it well nigh impossible for any successor productions to do much to alter what she and Bucchino himself (co-deviser of this opus) have set down in contractual stone.
Their taste is clearly for refined, well-crafted songs that are never less than impeccably well behaved, with rarely any excesses of emotion this way or that, and a marked tendency towards ‘ballardisation’: the slow, reflective mode is preferred here, with much breathlessly poised introspection, hearts firmly pinned to sleeves and all the trademark genuflections of US song-cycle-dom very much on show. Prince also directed the first runs of Jason Robert Brown’s ‘The Last Five Years’ and ‘Songs For A New World’; Bucchino is a somewhat smaller, less showy chip off that old block. He has The Master’s penchant for elaborate, not to say symphonic piano accompaniment (all wonderfully rendered here by the tireless hands of MD Nick Barstow, who keeps everyone beautifully together, even when he’s having to direct everything from behind their backs!). But Bucchino doesn’t have JRB’s gift for melodic hooks, nor his emotional range, nor his dramatist’s instinct’s for comic situations, nor – ultimately – does he have a voice that is as well defined or as clearly articulated: rather than creating his own way, he seems always determined to remind us that he is following where others have gone before. This seems central to his raison d’être; it may be admirable and worthy, but it never quite feels fresh. Furthermore, Bucchino seems smitten with some very particular opinions and beliefs, and these loom large in his texts: think of an Evangelical Sondheim, and you pretty much get where he is wanting to take us. Into prayer. This may well endear him to American audiences, for whom God is often a cosy next-door neighbour, but more skeptical Brits might find him just a little too pious for their eschatalogical appetites. As things are, we feel we are getting more sermons rather than theatre.
We should therefore regard director Tania Azevedo as doing the best she can with material that is fairly resistant to dramatic excitement. Azevedo stunned the London scene with her brilliant production of ‘Hello Again’ at the Hope Theatre not so long ago, and with quality like that – some of Michael John LaChiusa’s finest – she flies. Bucchino, alas, seems to want to keep all of his interpreters not only earth-bound, but pretty much static. Worse, the sequence of songs has no discernible logic, permitting the director to find nothing approaching a theatrical shape in the presentation: this must be most frustrating to a director whose strengths lie in that very area. And, even when William Whelton’s choreography injects movement and energy into the action on stage, he seems to be having to fight against, rather than work with, the text and score themselves, an impression reinforced by the strenuous efforts of the game cast, who have a number of other tricky hurdles to surmount (more of these in a moment). Added to this, although Justin Williams and Jonny Rust pull out all the stops to create yet another re-invention of the theatre space (they are the most frequent and most imaginative designers at this address), with a gorgeous white-and-candystripe-pastel Greenwich apartment, complete with 1940’s shiny lacquered Hollywood floor, and chequerboard based bar, this very inventiveness always seems to be implying that more should be happening than actually does.
The same goes for the performances. Jordan Shaw sums up the problems of this work in a fine number, delivered from a chair in the centre of the stage, a moment made into an event by Clancy Flynn’s ever-active lighting design: this is an entirely interior exploration of a mood, and through the sheer force of his will-power he makes it spring as if newly created from his heart; but, listen closely to the lyrics, and it’s hard to find anything other than conventional utterances put into his mouth. A further complication is provided – once again – by the bizarre acoustics of this space. Already noted and commented upon by many other visitors to this space, the unamplified voices of the performers (and even though on this occasion I was sat in the second row of this modestly proportioned fringe venue) appear to go straight up into its cavernous vaulting, where most of their weight disappears forever. In contrast, the musical accompaniment booms out horizontally towards us, often making the actors’ voices strike us as all but inaudible. Jennifer Harding, despite having terrific vocal equipment, was similarly stricken by this blight, even though she was doing her damnedest to bring the songs to some kind of life. Noel Sullivan, with a really gutsy rock-and-roll meatiness in his voice, struggled to make his wonderful sound stay with us – the building just seemed to gobble it up, allowing little of his magic to reach the audience. Sammy Graham fared no better, despite her pin-point clarity of diction and finely nuanced characterisations. And Will Carey’s sweet, soft tenor was mauled into virtual non-existence by a room apparently dedicated to swallowing up his performance.
This is a crying shame. A song-cycle – of all forms – stands or falls on the ability of its performers to make themselves heard. And this venue, it has to be said – over and over again, until something can be done about it – just seems to be poison in that department. This is deeply unfair on both casts and audiences alike. Can someone help? Meanwhile, we have to face the fact that Bucchino wants us to acknowledge him – as the songwriter – as the most important element in this work. Sadly, audiences are sure to get a whiff of that, and I wonder whether many will warm to it. We go to the theatre to be taken on a journey by the performers. Everything else is the craft, and that has to be kept as unobtrusive as possible, and always put at the service of the story. Here, Mr Bucchino appears to want to subvert that tradition and place himself, and his ambition to become a songwriter, in the forefront of our minds. Had he something of greater substance to say, that might be more excusable, but for all its portentous posturing this is light fare. He may well have received – as one of his numbers tells us, repeatedly – a note from Stephen Sondheim, but a note is not a rave review.
And neither is this.
Until 7 July 2018