Performing the evidently autobiographical “The Artist at 40” to kick off John Bucchino’s catalog revue “It’s Only Life,” Jamison Stern complains he’s “so busy making art / That there’s no time to live the life the art is imitating.” He may be on to something. As emotionally focused and musically diverse as Bucchino’s repertoire is, his artistic inquiry’s relatively narrow scope explains why this world premiere event at Ventura’s Rubicon Theater, helmed by Daisy Prince, arouses more admiration than excitement.
The show invites us to participate in the creative mind, as a selection of Bucchino’s vastly popular cabaret numbers progresses from personal and professional frustration, to deep introspection, thence to a final recognition of the unlimited potential in art and life.
This particular creative mind demonstrates a considerable appreciation of the urban dating and relationship wars, lyrics bursting with candid self-analysis and melodies soaring and landing in unexpected ways.
Billy Porter sagely, sadly anatomizes an attempted Gotham bar pickup as he flashed a “Playbill” from a Sondheim show, sly joke tacitly included — the tuner has to have been “Passion.” Joan Almedilla explains her lover flunked a magazine “Love Quiz” (“Your eyes are locked / Not our eyes, your eyes / Locked from my eyes / Not to them”).
All five performers aver as far as love is concerned, “I’m Not Waiting,” with Jessica Phillips challenging “Who made the rule that two is better than one? / I bet that fool is alone by a phone, coming undone.” And as the playlist winds away from bitterness, she announces “in my wisdom or … defeat / I’ve learned to let things go.”
Yet self-analysis quickly begins to feel like self-absorption.
Sameness sets in, as individuals sing of their static emotional states in number after number.
What linger in memory are the exceptions. Phillips’ rendition of the shattering “Sweet Dreams,” in which two broken strangers connect upon arriving in California but enjoy different outcomes, both resembles and honors Joni Mitchell at her peak.
Yet this gem stands virtually alone as a “They” song — one detailing another person’s narrative. Just as the numerous “They” songs in Jacques Brel’s songbook show make one yearn for a little personal insight, more outwardly directed observation and less “I” would be welcome here.
Demonstrating the dramatic value of a strong objective, “A Contact High” scores, as a stoned teen (Lucas Steele) seeks to convince the ‘rents not to worry about his bloodshot 3:30 a.m. eyes. He inhabits his characterization fully, all grins and arms akimbo.
But other comedy songs offer attitude in lieu of action. A Bach-like guide to sucking up to “A Powerful Man,” and the effort to separate a recent messy breakup from the items “On My Bedside Table,” are subject to italicized mugging by Porter and Stern respectively, as if we couldn’t be trusted to find the humor ourselves.
Prince sends her quintet sailing smoothly through Beowulf Boritt’s polished enamel black box, accented by silver grouting on the back wall and geometric neon shapes on the ceiling. But again, too many numbers involve someone stepping into a special and singing his or her heart out. One craves variety long before the end.
Interestingly, only one of the 30 numbers and brief “transitions” is a duet, and Almedilla’s insistence on her ex’s virtues never connects with Steele’s assurance “Love Will Find You in Its Time”: The number plays as twin soliloquies. Come to think of it, Bucchino’s underappreciated score for Gotham’s soon-to-shutter “A Catered Affair” is largely conceived in soliloquy as well.
The tunesmith clearly has mastered the precise expression of a single needy soul. One eagerly awaits the results when he sets two or more such souls to persuading and transforming each other.