Songwriter John Bucchino’s songs are staples of the cabaret circuit, and deservedly so; he has the ability to present the inner emotions of contemporary life in words matched to soaring music that straddles the eras. The composer-lyricist has made two recent visits to Birdland, this time bringing along a clutch of singers to interpret his work. In addition to Bucchino’s own fine performance skills, that made Monday evening’s gig a 90-minute treat.
Much of the evening consisted of selections from the Ovation Award-winning 2008 Los Angeles production of the Bucchino-Daisy Prince songbook revue “It’s Only Life.” Joining the author onstage were four of the cast members, along with a few other guests including the justly celebrated Ann Hampton Callaway and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The effect was of one gem followed by another. Bucchino’s biggest hits were present, naturally, with Mitchell undertaking “Grateful” — which he has sung frequently, though not with the composer at the keys — and Lucas Steele’s stunning rendition of “Unexpressed.”
What made the evening, though, were the lesser-known songs, many of them shining like bejeweled miniatures. Standing out were Jessica Phillips on “Sweet Dreams,” Zak Resnick on “What You Need,” Callaway’s “In a Restaurant by the Sea” and especially “On My Bedside Table” from Jamison Stern. Two group numbers — with vocal arrangements by Jason Robert Brown — rocked the house, “That Smile” and “Taking the Wheel.” Bucchino’s short-lived 2008 Broadway musical, “A Catered Affair,” was represented by two songs performed by Jacqueline Hester.
Accompanied by cellist Yair Evnine, the songwriter scored with “Learn How to Say Goodbye.” He also included one non-Bucchino song, bouncing around keyboard and piano bench with a vibrant instrumental version of “My Favorite Things.” This is taken from his fine recording “On Richard Rodgers’ Piano,” for which he planted himself in front of the late composer’s Steinway — presently residing in his friend Adam Guettel’s loft — and spun improvisational magic.
Overall effect of the Birdland show was that of a house party with a hundred-plus friends, some of whom were called up to contribute a dynamite song or two to the festivities. Unsurprisingly, the front desk was doing a brisk business in Bucchino CDs and songbooks on the way out.