Brimming with intimate character portraits, sophisticated intelligence and emotional sincerity, the impeccably crafted songs of John Bucchino have garnered admiration in cabaret-style performance settings. Yet despite his recent close call with “A Catered Affair,” wider recognition has so far eluded the composer and lyricist.
That relative obscurity is something director Daisy Prince set out to rectify in teaming with Bucchino to create the musical revue “It’s Only Life.” After a 2004 New York workshop and Lincoln Center concert performance, the show receives its first full staging at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, with Prince again at the helm.
Deceptive simplicity is the hallmark of both the material and the production. From keenly observed everyday circumstance, Bucchino mines deep revelations about idealism, disillusionment and their ultimate reconciliation in 20 songs spanning a satisfying range of musical theater styles. While the lyrics occasionally stretch for rhymes (“Gibran” with “yawn”?), they capture longing with understated eloquence (“Run away to another skin / a tough one, a pretty one / That won’t let the sadness in / Won’t let the madness win”).
Confronting city life amid a litany of apprehensions and neuroses, verses from the autobiographical opening number, “The Artist at 40,” also serve as unifying transitional passages threaded through the evening.
Prince’s use of thematic associations rather than contextual or narrative bridges between songs is similar to her staging for the original production of the Jason Robert Brown compilation, “Songs for a New World.” Not coincidentally, Brown provided vocal arrangements here; his flashier pop influence complements Bucchino’s more introspective style.
In keeping with the less structured revue format, the performers (whose Broadway credentials are apparent in their singing prowess) have no set characters, but each embodies a distinct archetype through all songs. Octave-leaping Billy Porter portrays aspects of city dwellers’ struggles for fulfillment -- whether he’s crooning soul-searching blues, ditties about corporate brown-nosing or the rueful barroom confessional of “Playbill.”
Joan Almedilla deftly handles romanticism and its inevitable disappointments, crystallized in the haunting ballad “This Moment.” Lucas Steele radiates the exuberance of youth, looking to unleash his pent-up potential in “Unexpressed” and seizing independence in the show-stopping “Taking the Wheel.”
Elegant Jessica Phillips brings worldly wisdom to “Sweet Dreams,” a heartbreaking narrative song about isolation, intersecting lives and reinvented identity.
Jamison Stern’s sharp, snappy delivery is perfectly suited to the intellectual twists and turns in a witty therapy exercise and the struggle of a middle-aged man to put failed romance behind him. Switching the order of his final two solos, however, would make a more flow-friendly descent from glib self-protection to devastating loss.
Production values are far higher than the typical bar for revues. While previous performances and recordings of Bucchino’s songs have been limited to solo piano accompaniment, Bruce Coughlin’s five-piece live orchestration brings out their richness.
Beowulf Boritt’s shiny black-and-chrome-tiled set magically transforms into a portal of gorgeous natural tableaux, mirroring the show’s progression from claustrophobic sterility to rediscovered possibilities.