Stage Scene LA.com

"The final moments of It's Only Life are a breathtaking blend of set, lighting, and imagination."

 In 2005 I paid my first visit to Ventura's Rubicon Theatre, to see its justly lauded production of Jason Robert Brown's musical revue Songs For A New World. Now, a bit more than three years later, the Rubicon has become one of my favorite Southland theaters and (despite outlandish gasoline prices) still worth the drive north, especially when the production being presented is as sensational as 2008's musical revue, John Bucchino's It's Only Life. In fact, it's only distance and gas prices that prevent me from seeing It's Only Life a second, or even third time.

As its title suggests, Bucchino's revue takes a look at those moments when life throws us a curve. His lyrics are smart and intelligent (not always the same thing) and his melodies complex yet accessible and yes, even hummable. Performed by a sterling cast imported from New York and directed by the brilliant Daisy Prince, It's Only Life provides a truly gorgeous and thrilling evening of musical theater.

This is It's Only Life's world premiere production, its previous incarnations having been in concert form. Original NYC concert director Prince and star Billy Porter return for this fully staged version, joined by Joan Almedilla, Jessica Phillips, Lucas Steele, and Jamison Stern.

Dreadlocked Porter lends his soulful voice to "Playbill," the story of two lovers who meet thanks to a Playbill (magazine) for a Sondheim show. Porter's "What You Need" is a slow jazz number ("Sing those blues, lonely saxophone, I'll try to give you what you need") and "A Powerful Man" a humorous ditty about sucking up to its titular character. The loudest ovation of the evening was for Porter's exquisite rendition of "Grateful," a sublimely beautiful melody merged with lyrics of exquisite simplicity: "Grateful, grateful, truly grateful I am. Grateful, grateful, truly blessed and duly grateful."

The lovely Almedilla (one of the stars of the Rubicon's Songs For A New World) takes on the persona of an NYU co-ed for her songs, which include the witty "Love Quiz" ("I took a love quiz in a women's magazine. You failed two out of three areas and you only passed the third when my libido threw in a grading curve.") She also lends her rich soprano to "This Moment" ("This moment, perfect, golden, grasp it see it.")

Statuesque beauty Phillips sings the country flavored "Sweet Dreams," the tale of a man who "left a man in New York City" and a woman who "broke a home in New Orleans" who set off on a journey together. "When You're Here" showcases Phillips' heavenly soprano in the ironic tale of a woman who misses her lover more when he's by her side, and on a more reflective note, she sings "I've Learned To Let Things Go," about letting go of a love that was not meant to be.

Steele, with a tenor to match the blue-eyed face of an angel, inspires tears with some of It's Only Life's most heartbreakingly beautiful melodies. In "Unexpressed," he sings of "longing to meet that pair of eyes, dark as the night or endless blue." "It Feels Like Home" is about the true meaning of home. ("Yes we have come from a long way, friends say wrong way. Still, I only know when you hold me, it feels like home.") Steele's duet with Almedilla, "Love Will Find You In Its Time" mixes humor and poignancy in a tale of the oh so bumpy road to true love.

Completing the quintet is the goofily charming Stern, who opens with the very clever "Painting My Kitchen" ("My therapist said I should write about painting my kitchen, the most boring topic I ever heard. I can't think of a word.") In the jazzy "On My Bedside Table," he sings about a breakup and the items which have accumulated since then on the titular table. Then there's quite possibly the evening's most beautiful song of all, "If I Ever Say I'm Over You," which Stern sings with breathtaking simplicity. ("If I ever say I'm over you, the unsentimental things I do will have driven out the ghosts somehow and pulled me through.")

Songs For A New World composer Brown has created gorgeous musical arrangements for It's Only Life's ensemble numbers, "That Smile," "It's Only Life," "Taking The Wheel," and "A Glimpse Of The Weave," and Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations are superbly performed by musical director Brent Crayon and the five member orchestra.

Still, it is the creativity and imagination of director Prince that make It's Only Life so much more than just a bunch of songs about life's ups and downs. Prince has staged each number as a mini-play, a fine example of which is "A Contact High," a one minute song-ette about a teenager (Steele) who returns home late to disapproving parents (Phillips and Stern) with a pitiful excuse of having gotten a "contact high" from second-hand smoke.

Lending invaluable support to Prince are Beowulf Boritt's scenic design and Jason Lyons' lighting. Boritt's set surrounds the performers with black window-like squares behind which blue sky and a field of daisies appear at appropriate moments. Lyons' lighting is especially effective in illustrating the many colors of the kitchen Stern paints, and the final moments of It's Only Life are a breathtaking blend of set, lighting, and imagination.

Drew Dalzell's sound expertly mixes voices and orchestra, and Elizabeth Cox's costumes are designed to fit the personas embodied by the cast.

The standing ovation given It's Only Life by the opening night audience is likely to be repeated many timed throughout its run. As summer 2008 begins, you won't see a more exquisitely musical evening (or afternoon) of theater than It's Only Life.

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura. Through July 13. Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., Thursdays at 8:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets: (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org

--Steven Stanley
June 21, 2008