Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Legally Blonde the Musical
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley welcomes home one whom Artistic Director Robert Kelley refers to as "family" as the company presents the American premiere of Life of the Party. Its composer and lyricist, Andrew Lippa, has a twelve-year history with Kelley and company, having premiered his A Little Princess here in 2004 as well as repeatedly brought in-progress musical creations to both their annual Writer's Workshop and New Works Festival. This current musical revue, conceived by the composer and David Babani, arrives (after a successful London run) in Mountain View in a first-class, stunning production that can surely rival anything one would hope to see in the West End or New York.
Life of the Party does not mix and match Andrew Lippa's songs into a contrived storyline (as some Sondheim revues have done) but instead presents several songs of his various musicals, complete with the characters, costumes, and choreography from each. Joining Mr. Lippa on stage are three Broadway and West End veterans (Damian Humbley, Sally Ann Triplet, and Teal Wicks) as well as TheatreWorks' Resident Musical Director William Liberatore on piano and three string players (Candace Guirao, Emily Onderdonk, Kris Yenney). Mr. Lippa alternates between singing, dancing, and narrating while also accompanying others or himself on the piano.
The first musical featured is Lippa's most recent foray onto Broadway, the 2014 much-maligned-by-critics Big Fish. Quickly, however, the songs presented prove that a musical many may consider to be a near-flop can still be populated with wonderful songs with catchy, creative lyrics. Damian Humbley gets things off in grand style with "Be the Hero," using his trumpeting voice and dynamic personality to sell big time the idea of "Be the hero of your story if you can," an appropriate message for a night subtitled "A Celebration of the Songs of Andrew Lippa." After a silly and fun duo and dance with Mr. Lippa in "The Alaskan Stomp," Mr. Humbley shifts the mood and his own extroverted persona into a reflective, haunting "Time Stops," joined by the lovely voice of Teal Wicks.
Our initial exposure to Sally Ann Triplett is the first of several times when her deeply moving, straightforward approach to singingthis time of "I Don't Need a Roof"causes audience members to lean forward in order not to miss a single note of her beautiful, stirring voice. The Big Fish set concludes with a rousing, inspiring duet between the two guys as they play father (Mr. Humbley) and son (Mr. Lippa) where the elder promises the son in a voice that lifts all our spirits with its crisp clarity, "So I'll fight the dragons 'til you can" (from "Fight the Dragons").
Andrew Lippa's longest run on Broadway, subsequently on stages around the world, and in regional theatres everywhere (including multiple ones here in the Bay Area) is The Addams Family; and the four numbers included in this revue prove why. All four singers appear in the immediately recognizable, mostly black costumes and mostly white/black/red make-up of key characters known to all from cartoon scripts and movie screens: husband Gomez (Lippa), wife Morticia (Sally), daughter Wednesday (Wicks), and Uncle Fester (Humbley). Their opening "When You're an Addams" completely delights with its clever lyrics, hummable tune, and hilarious choreography. Equally pleasing is Uncle Fester's "The Moon and Me," in which Damian Humbley sings in a sweet, almost boyish voice his love song to the heavenly orb while accompanied on ukulele by Mr. Lippa.
Wednesday continues The Addams Family crowd pleasers with Ms. Teal intensely and even spastically knocking out "Pulled," singing "I'm being pulled in a new direction ... I can't let it go ... It's disgustingly true" while yanking off the head of a nearby chirping bird. The set and the first act come to a gleefully macabre ending as Ms. Triplett, as Morticia, sings in a gruesomely delicious voice full of vigor and verve, "Death Is Just Around the Corner," with three dead bodies joining her in a chorus line that sends the audience out to intermission with their own spirits floating toward the heavens.
And so the evening continues with other fun-filled, talent-rich snapshots of such Lippa musicals as The Wild Party (recently revived in extended runs at both San Francisco's Ray of Light Theatre and San Jose's The Stage), A Little Princess, john & jen, and Asphalt Beach. We even get to hear Andrew sing "Spread a Little Joy" from Betty Boop, a musical, he explains, that "not only did not make it to Broadway ... this one did not make it to the second act."
Throughout the evening, each performer continues to out-do earlier rendered numbers to further wow the audience. Teal Wicks is a wickedly sexy Kate from The Wild Party as she spills her guts out in desperate passion in "The Life of the Party." With an evocative voice that leaves indelible impressions, Sally Ann Triplett sings "Love Somebody Now" with such feeling that the message pierces to the core. And every time Damian Humbley steps into the spotlight, he sets a new standard for his own excellence as he shifts in tone and texture to deliver such numbers as "Let Me Drown" (from The Wild Party) where his luminous voice takes on religious revival fervor.
But it is when Andrew Lippa steps forward as Harvey Milk to sing "You Are Here" from I Am Harvey Milk that the crowning performance of the stellar evening occurs. Choosing one of the songs from the oratorio that was commissioned and premiered in 2012 by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (and in which he starred as the title character), Mr. Lippa belts in increasing waves of intensity, emotion, and conviction, "First gay man, elected first gay man ... gay and Jew ... Jew and gay." When he wrote the commission, gay and Jewish Andrew Lippa was the same age as Milk was when assassinated. The story he tells before singing this incredible number proves finally that The Life of the Party is of course autobiographical in many ways, exposing the menschlichkeitthe humanityof this composer that comes across in so much of his music and his own performance of that music.
Co-creator David Babani directs the flow and feel of the entire evening with adventurous flair, sensitive timing, and inventive subtleties. Morgan Large's scenic design commands immediate attention upon entering the theatre with its stage-filling hollow panels and shelves peppered with pictures and paraphernalia that will be appropriately highlighted to match songs and musicals. His costumes are nothing short of astounding and often totally hilarious as principals parade through the many musical settings, making numerous changes.
Not enough can be said to describe the brilliant lighting design of Tim Lutkin. Spots emit from all parts of the theater to shine in numerous combinations and forms on the stage. For this production of so many scenes and settings, the lighting proves to be as key to the smooth transitions and highlighted numbers as is the direction or the acting. Brendan Aanes has ensured that none of the intriguing lyrics or captivating lines of music is lost due to a sparkling, exacting sound design. And finally, while mentioned in name earlier, special kudos must go the William Liberatore for his outstanding musical direction and even for his several ventures into the singing and acting of the revue itself.
Waking up this morning, I immediately looked at my calendar to see if there is possibly a way to return to the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts before the September 18th closing of The Life of the Party. This is not a show that will likely be seen again in these parts, certainly not with this cast and the composer himself as one of its stars. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has once again proved why its long history of premiere musicals places the company in the forefront not only in the Bay Area but also nationally, for presenting new works by known, creative geniuses. Life of the Party deserves to be seen by anyone who has even the slightest penchant for musical theatre in order to get a glimpse at a man whose career is still in full swing, as witnessed by one of the show's closing numbers from his next show, The Man in the Ceiling, to be presented in its world premiere production at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York.
Life of the Party continues through September 18, 2016, by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.