The Life of the Party - A Celebration of the Songs of Andrew Lippa

  • Our critic's rating:
    Tuesday, June 3, 2014
    Review by:
    Mark Shenton

    London's Menier Chocolate Factory has regularly taken coals to Newcastle by returning Broadway shows to their place of origin, with their Tony winning revival of La Cage Aux Folles and their Tony nominated productions of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music, all of which originated in Southwark. Last year's transfer to the West End of another Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along won the Olivier for Best Musical Revival.

    Now they bring another slice of Broadway to London in the shape of composer/lyricist (and sometime performer) Andrew Lippa, and if he's not quite in the same exalted league as Sondheim (but then who is?), it's exciting that they're taking British theatregoers into more unfamiliar terrain.

    Though Lippa was actually born in the UK in Leeds (before emigrating to the US as an infant), his work is comparatively little known here, apart from a brief fringe run of his very first show John & Jen. So it's a pleasure to be introduced to such a wide range of his work now, encompassing his Broadway entries with The Addams Family and Big Fish, but also his off-Broadway work with John & Jen and The Wild Party, plus songs from unproduced musicals and new shows that are in development.

    Less of a revue than fully-staged extracts from each of those shows give us a real taste of what they are about. I was disappointed only that the section from The Wild Party omitted its most uproarious melody 'Raise the Roof', but this show raised the roof in every other way.

    A stunning trio of singers -- two Aussies (Caroline O'Connor and Damian Humbley, both of whom have appeared regularly in the West End) and a Strallen (Summer this time) -- join Lippa himself to perform the songs, and under David Babani's nuanced direction, they explore the intensity and feeling in each one.

    Humbley, whom I first encountered on this same stage when he starred in the Menier's UK premiere of Jason Robert Brown's The Last 5 Years opposite Lara Pulver back in 2008, was spellbinding as Charley Kringas in the Menier's Merrily We Roll Along, and he brings the same quirky personality and thrilling singing voice to individualise every song. He's particularly notable in the Big Fish sequences.

    No Menier show seems to be complete these days without a Strallen -- Zizi was in Merrily We Roll Along, Scarlett was in Candide, and now Summer sizzles here, especially when she performs the title song of this revue from The Wild Party.

    And Caroline O'Connor is both hilarious (on 'An Old-Fashioned Love Story' from The Wild Party) and heartbreaking (on 'I Don't Need a Roof' from Big Fish).

    Front and centre throughout though is the beaming presence of Lippa himself, whose solo renditions of 'You Are Here' from his new oratorio 'I am Harvey Milk' and 'I Do What I Do' from 'The Man in the Ceiling' that he is currently working on are both beautiful.


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