It's Only Life Sends a Singing November Valentine

November is early for valentines, but at Theatre Too love is in the air with It's Only Life, a 30-song revue by composer John Bucchino. Performed by five attractive young singer-actors, accompanied lovingly on grand piano by Terry Dobson, the 100-minute show begins as a look into quirks of the artistic mind and moves onto other introspective topics, including romance, breakups and all the messy emotions in between.

As modern metrosexual small musicals go, this one (reviewed at a preview) provides a sweet evening's entertainment, if you don't require much in the way of plot (there isn't any). It's Only Life doesn't bother with characters or stories. It sometimes expresses its passions a little too dourly, too, but then life does have its sour moments worth singing about.

Bucchino's flowy, lyric-heavy ballads have been recorded by New York cabaret royalty such as Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli, Patti LuPone and Michael Feinstein. He also wrote the rather dreary score for the musical A Catered Affair, which just closed in Theatre Too's upstairs house, Theatre Three. It's Only Life, directed by Michael Serrecchia, is heaps more upbeat than that show, even when its songs are about sad things.

As other critics have noted, Bucchino's songwriting style is hard to describe, somewhere between sophisticated supper-club pop and the meandering form known as "art songs." You can hear in the music that he likes to dip into the syncopation of Sondheim and wrap some of his words in the jazz-folk warmth of Joni Mitchell. If you can't yet hear anything that makes a Bucchino song uniquely his, you sense that with this show's collection, he's on the brink finding it. He'll get better once he moves his rhymes beyond "bridges burned" and "lessons learned."

Again and again in It's Only Life, Bucchino writes of the frustration of being a lonely artist too consumed with self-imposed deadlines to get out and live. That's the theme of the opening number, "The Artist at 40," whose message is "I'm so busy making art that I can't live the life the art is imitating." When he does mingle, if these songs are meant to be autobiographical, he's a perpetual singleton, either afraid of connecting or fearful of getting dumped. Most of the songs in this revue are solos on some variation of "I'm afraid to be myself" or "I'm afraid to be alone," evidence of a personality teetering somewhere between insecurity and full-blown narcissism. But that's any artist, right?

Two of Bucchino's most-recorded numbers, "Grateful" and "This Moment," each from the "Is That All There Is?" category of personal insight through music, are about jumping into life and hoping for the best. Darius-Anthony Robinson, an immensely likable presence in this or any show, turns "Grateful" into a moving hymn to life's blessings, large and small. One senses that Robinson is singing at about half power because of the small size of the venue. If he really let loose, his big voice, even unamplified, might crack the pavement above. "This Moment," sung by Erica Harte (Wendla in WaterTower Theatre's recent Spring Awakening), is a sad-happy ode to existing in the present and leaving past baggage behind. Her pretty voice and emotional pitch are comfortably matched.

The other cast members, Seth Grugle, Jennifer Noth and Angel Velasco, all have nice moments. Grugle looks a bit angry on "If I Ever Say I'm Over You," and he tends to sing over the heads of the three rows of audience, but he does have strong pipes. Noth, who toured for two years in Mamma Mia!, lets her big number, "I've Learned to Let Things Go," build gradually. It's about moving on from an abusive relationship, and in Noth's delicate performance we hear an implied backstory of heartbreak. On "It Feels Like Home," one of this show's best moments, Velasco gives his velvety voice a sexy whisper as he sings about that special feeling in a relationship when all is going right.

It's Only Life is well done, but it hasn't escaped the technical toadstools that typically sprout from Theatre Three/Too shows. Costumes by Bruce R. Coleman stick to a narrow palette of blacks and grays — at least the third show this season that Coleman has robbed of the joy of color. He also wraps the actors in coats, gloves and mufflers, as if they're freezing at a bus stop in Vancouver instead of singing to 80 people on an underground stage near downtown Dallas.

Scenery by Jeffrey Schmidt festoons the upstage wall with 450 cones of newspaper arranged around a mirrored dome. Depending on lighting, the assemblage looks like the center of a giant chrysanthemum or a puzzle-maze begging to be solved. For a show that keeps asking us, song after song, to soften up and let the love in, it resembles a trap waiting for prey. The more they smile and hug onstage, the more we worry that they might all fall backward onto that wall and get gobbled up by its pointy teeth.

Think about what makes road movies good. Scenery. Lots of scenery. Fandango, Sideways, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. And conversation. Great conversation. Among characters stuck together, for whatever reasons, for the length of the trip. They fight, they love, they share secrets in messy front seats and seedy motel rooms.

Now consider a road movie as a stage play. That's what Kitchen Dog Theater has with its regional premiere of Quiara Alegría Hudes' 26 Miles. It's a road trip without the scenery, without even the road; just dialogue. And that's just one of its problems.

Hudes, who wrote the book of the Tony-winning musical In the Heights, has churned out a pedestrian drama about unlikable characters you wouldn't want to walk across the street with, much less watch drive from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. On a stage. With a steering wheel attached to a piece of plywood on scenery painted to look like a volcano. Sort of. Not really.

That's the journey taken by precocious 10th-grader Olivia (Allie Donnelly) and her unhinged birth mother Beatriz (Christina Vela) after the kid runs away from her dad (Ashley Wood) and his indifferent second wife (never seen). Instead of taking her back to her house, Beatriz drives them across the country because Olivia wants to see buffalo roam.

On the drive, the girl, who's lived with her dad since a nasty custody dispute a decade earlier, learns that her mom went to Woodstock, which Olivia thought was "an urban legend." And that her mom's second husband (Christopher Carlos) has another woman on the side.

They talk. Oh, how they talk. They describe scenery. That's fun. They encounter local color, like a South Dakota roadside food vendor (Carlos again) who spins an elegiac description of how his wife makes tamales.

But the longer they take to get to Wyoming, the more you wish they'd rev the engine of their invisible car, clasp hands and end things like the best road flick ever about two women: Thelma and Louise.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner