It may be ‘Only Life’, but this show is a (great!) big deal

The Australasian premiere of New York-based writer and pianist’s John Bucchino’s show ‘It’s Only Life’ is very, very good.

At the outset, let me say I’m a Bucchino fan. Ever since I heard David Campbell’s rendition of ‘Taking the Wheel’ I’ve been intrigued by this seemingly effortless mix of thoughtful commentary on life and ripping music. I’ve got John’s CDs, and follow John’s news online. His music is poignant as it can be powerful; his lyrics uplifting, and yet, sometimes, incredibly sad. Listen to ‘If I Ever Say I’m Over You’ and be transported back to your first, agonising breakup.

John Bucchino is a more than a writer and a musician – he is a storyteller, an observer of life and someone with a unique gift of reaching into one’s inner thoughts and experiences, and coming out with a song that makes your go ‘how does he do this?!’.

When John played two years ago here in Melbourne, I went along and was in awe. The guy can play.

‘It’s Only Life’, which is currently on at Chapel Off Chapel, according to the Director’s Notes is “a review style musical without a linear narrative”. Whether it needs a linear narrative is, in my view, debatable. The songs and the musicality of the performance stand alone – though as someone who’s listened to the CD of the musical countless times, the linkages and the story weren’t important. What was – and what didn’t disappoint – was the quality of the performances from the cast of seven and watching John at the piano, in his element, loving the music.

The respect that the cast showed the music was impressive, as was the personal ways they interpreted the music. For example, Jared Newall’s take on ‘A Contact High’ (a scene we can all relate to from our younger days, getting home at 3.00am) was very funny, as was his rendition of the powerful ‘Taking the Wheel’ – one of what I consider three signature tunes from the show, along with ‘It’s Only Life’ and the finale – ‘Glimpse of the Weave’.

While the show was originally cast for five singers, this show had seven singers and while it allows everyone to belt out some stunning, rich chords in the cast numbers, it doesn’t give a focus on a smaller number of singers as perhaps five would. It’s a minor issue and not to do with either the quality of the performance or the intensity of John’s playing – just an observation from someone who has listened to the CD – often!

Sam Rabbone’s ‘Grateful’, especially the way he handled the soaring high notes was really good, and I left chuckling with Phoebe Coupe’s comedic acting. The cast were tight, and the audience appropriately appreciative.

My only grizzle has nothing to do with anyone on – or off – stage – but it annoyed me and before the pro-kids in theatre lobby bucket me, let me say if you can’t have your toddler sit for 90-ish minutes and not distract people around them, then please don’t bring them to a show. Being right in my sightline of the stage was off-putting, so sorry, Christian Cavallo, I’d have talked up your go at ‘If I Ever Say I’m Over You’ – but there was a wriggly wriggler in front me who wouldn’t sit still! Mind you, Christian’s showmanship got a fine airing with ‘Painting My Kitchen’ and gave the song a different take to what I’d thought it would be – to our benefit.

I’m far from a music ‘critic’ – I just love good music, especially meaningful music that you can care about. This cast did that and it was great to see them later for John’s solo show. We can be pragmatic and critical sometimes in life – but this music talks to you, and this cast, each with their own take on John’s music, did a great job.

We’re very fortunate in Melbourne to have shows like this playing, and after having listened endlessly to the CD, I had high expectations. I wanted the live-version chords to swell and the richness of John’s music to live. I wanted ‘A Contact High’ to be cheeky, ‘Grateful’ to be powerful, ‘That Smile’ joyous, and ‘A Glimpse of the Weave’ to literally bring the strands of the show together.

It be may ‘only life’, but in this musical, John Bucchino taps into peoples’ frailties, their dreams, their hopes – and delivers.

And we are indeed John, grateful.

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