REVIEW: The Life Of The Party, Menier Chocolate Factory ✭✭✭✭

Caroline O'Connor, Andrew Lippa, Summer Strallen and Damian Humbley © Francis Loney
Caroline O’Connor, Andrew Lippa, Summer Strallen and Damian Humbley © Francis Loney

Life of the Party
Chocolate Menier Theatre
14 June 2014
4 Stars

I should disclose at the outset that I was one of the (apparently few) patrons who thought the original Broadway productions of The Addams Family and Big Fish were pretty damn fine examples of the genre; both were laced with joy, heart and cleverness. And both had the benefit of fine lyrics and engaging, catchy music with that rare, ineffable quality – you think you have heard the tunes before, not because they are trite or repetitive, but because they talk to your soul, unleash memories and passions and make you feel comfortable, in the mood and relaxed.

Andrew Lippa is the composer and lyricist responsible for both musicals. Unaccountably, his work has not been favoured with professional productions in London and perhaps that is why David Babani, the artistic director and moving force behind the celebrated Menier Chocolate Factory, chose Lippa as the artist to showcase for a three week cabaret/revue season.

Whatever the motivation, it was a wise and inspirational move.

For The Life Of The Party, the resultant cabaret/revue which last night finished its short but significant run at the Menier Chocolate Factory, was a splendid and significant contribution to the world of musical theatre performances in London. It is difficult to imagine that patrons of this show would not want to see and hear more of Lippa’s work, especially the works showcased here.

In no small way, the beauty of the event was in its shaping. Babani devised the work with Lippa, and the choices are canny and sensible, and they demonstrate the wide range of Lippa’s writing and skill.

There are amazing songs presented in full throttle glory: Be The Hero, I Don’t Need A Roof and Fight The Dragons (Big Fish); Love Somebody Now (not from a show, but gobsmackingly beautiful); When You’re An Addams and Just Around The Corner (Addams Family); Just Like You and Bye, Room (John & Jen); Let Me Down, An Old Fashioned Love Story and Poor Child (The Wild Party), You Are Here (I Am Harvey Milk) and I Do What I Do and To The Gods (from work in progress The Man In The Ceiling).

Each was different, full of unexpected joy and piquant insightfulness; interesting and engaging tunes; highs and lows; stories told through music.

The numbers from the new work, The Man In The Ceiling, were especially good. They promise a show really worth seeing. It’s not often a new song makes one want to sing it immediately – but I Do What I Do has that allure. And To The Gods is the kind of Broadway showstopper which defines careers and makes audiences jump to their feet, slavering for more.

Lippa himself is a engaging personality and easily holds the narrative together with an easy and assured charm. But, apart from the Harvey Milk number, which was exceptional, it would have been better if he had let other, more gifted performers, sing his admirable tunes and deliver his admirable lyrics. His performing skill is not as uniformly impressive as his material deserves.

Perhaps this was accentuated by the company he was keeping here. It is not that he was bad or woeful – he wasn’t. But neither was he as electric or as passionate or engaged as his material required. This was especially true in the Big Fish and Addams Family numbers. But, without doubt, his delivery of You Are Here from I Am Harvey Milk was one of the serious big points of the evenings – and that was a very personal solo from Lippa.

Damian Humbley does for the music of Big Fish what Norbert Leo Butz was singularly incapable of doing on Broadway: he makes it thrilling, exciting, full of dreams, ideals and wonder. He is in excellent vocal form throughout and he gets to show different sides to his versatility – he is a wonderful, beguiling Fester in The Moon And Me and completely different as the darker, bleak man who sings Let Me Drown. It would have been beyond happiness if he had been given Happy/Sad from Addams Family too.

But the real thrill of the evening came from the deceptively diminutive form of the extraordinary volcano of talent that is Caroline O’Connor. Without much assistance from costumes or make-up, O’Connor successfully and effortlessly created a series of very different woman, and delivered a handful of remarkable songs, each of which called for entirely idiosyncratic styles of virtuosity, and serious vocal talent.

She effortlessly brought the house down with her zany, comic delivery of An Old Fashioned Love Story – her belt was pure and true, her tongue work exceptional, and her eyes ablaze with innuendo and promise. But, earlier, she had given a wonderful, evocative and heart wrenchingly gorgeous version of Love Somebody Now, a reflective, soul-searching and introspective ballad. This is not the kind of number O’Connor is known for – but she had no trouble delivering it perfectly. She should sing it always.

But, actually, her best work came in her turns as Morticia. She was deliciously dry, immaculately ghoulish, splendidly arch and sparkling with the jewels of Black Death. Her turn here made one desperate to see her do the full role alongside a Gomez that could match her nuance, her skill, her sheer joie de vivre. If such a one exists.

Babani did something exceptionally clever here. He chose wide ranging repertoire which displayed the various talents of Andrew Lippa lustrously.

But, equally, and perhaps more importantly, he showed the great depth of range that O’Connor and Humbley have at their disposal.

The Menier Chocolate Factory is an important, indeed essential, part of the landscape of musical theatre incubation in London. The Life Of The Party was an almost perfect showcase for unknown writing and unexplored talent. It also showed how good a small band can be while, at the same time, highlighting what a full orchestral sound could provide. Lynne Page provides wonderful, clever choreography which punctuates the melodies and themes deliciously and unobtrusively.

Bring on the full productions of Lippa’s work.


With a full string section…

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