Lippa's lively 'Party'

TheatreWorks hosts U.S. premiere of Andrew Lippa review

Now playing at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, "The Life of the Party: A Celebration of the Songs of Andrew Lippa" is very much what one would expect from the title: a polished, fast-paced, thoroughly enjoyable musical revue featuring the work of Andrew Lippa, the composer/lyricist behind such musicals as "The Addams Family," "The Wild Party," "Big Fish," "A Little Princess," "John & Jen" and more.

What sets "The Life of the Party" apart from similar tributes to other Broadway tunesmiths is the presence of Lippa himself. Not only does Lippa host his own party, as it were -- introducing songs and threading the show together with affable banter -- he also is one of the show's four cast members. And just in case singing, dancing and emceeing aren't enough, he joins the band from time to time to accompany a number on the piano or ukulele.

Originally staged in London by director David Babani (who co-conceived the show with Lippa), "The Life of the Party" comes to Mountain View under the aegis of TheatreWorks. Babani is again at the helm, and he has brought the bulk of the design team with him. Lights, set, costumes and choreography are all the work of his London colleagues. The notable exception is TheatreWorks' resident musical director William Liberatore, who leads the near-flawless on-stage combo from the piano.

If this revue boasts impeccable production values -- and it does -- it also boasts an exceptional cast. Two of the performers (Lippa and tenor Damian Humbley) were with the show in London, while the other two (mezzo Sally Ann Triplett and soprano Teal Wicks) are new to the material.

Lippa is a strong singer who holds his own admirably well in the dance sequences, and his rendition of "You are Here" from the oratorio "I Am Harvey Milk" is both passionate and controlled. Humbley goes from charmingly kooky as the Addams Family's Uncle Fester to gloriously profane as a power-hungry nun named Sister Severia (in the song "Christ Almighty" from "Asphalt Beach"), and he belts the hell out of the gin-fueled dithyramb "Let Me Drown" (from "The Wild Party").

But it is Lippa and Humbley's female counterparts who most often steal the show. Wicks combines seemingly effortless vocals with a fearless physicality. This is most obvious in the "Wild Party" sequence and in "Cindy," a cabaret number that imagines Cinderella as a peppy dominatrix. But her best performance may be the subtler "Pulled," in which the gloomy Wednesday Addams struggles against the euphoria of teenage infatuation. As Wicks sings, we can see the ambivalence writ large in her body; by the end of the song she appears nearly drawn and quartered by her inner turmoil.

Though Triplett has to finesse a handful of high notes throughout the evening, she is a consummate actress, whether selling Morticia Addams's drollery in "Just Around the Corner" or lobbing lustful asides at audience members in "An Old-Fashioned Love Story" ("The Wild Party"). When she finishes the pensive stand-alone ballad "Love Somebody Now," Lippa jokes about creating a Kickstarter campaign to put the performance on CD. He should stop joking and make it happen.

Performances and production values aside, this sort of career-spanning retrospective also provides us with an opportunity to consider the songwriter's oeuvre as a whole. What generalizations can we draw about Lippa's 20-plus years as a composer and lyricist?

In what is perhaps an unfortunate move, Lippa kicks off the show by giving us an impossible standard against which to judge his work: Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim. Sitting alone at the piano, Lippa sings an autobiographical piece ("Marshall Levin") which traces his own musical theatre career back to his adolescent discovery of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." But for all that he may idolize the man's work, dropping Sondheim's name at the top of the revue simply invites a comparison that may not be to Lippa's advantage.

To begin with, Lippa is too often content with obvious, overworked rhymes (as when he declares, in "Marshall Levin," that "One sweet afternoon / We were perfectly in tune"). His melodies are pleasant but seldom remarkable, and too many of his songs wander into a generic feel-good territory -- seemingly more interested in uplifting the listener than in advancing a plot point or revealing the inner life of a specific character.

To be fair, this last impression is likely exacerbated by the act of choosing revue-ready songs that are easily understood outside their original shows. By selecting numbers like "Live Out Loud" and "Spread a Little Joy" (from "A Little Princess" and the unproduced "Betty Boop," respectively), Lippa and Babani are presenting the composer/lyricist at his most saccharine, detached from any theatrical context that might justify the affirmational lyrics.

In general, Lippa is most successful when darker stories and characters force him to work in opposition to his apparent sentimental streak. Numbers from "The Addams Family" are deliciously macabre, and excerpts from "The Wild Party" present the nightlife of the pre-crash 1920s at its most debauched. The aforementioned "Christ Almighty" and "Cindy" also highlight Lippa at his Tom Lehrer-esque best (though in the latter, he awkwardly forces a rhyme by transmuting Snow White's dwarfs into elves).

The real question, of course, is not whether the songs are perfect, or groundbreaking, or touched with ephemeral genius. Are they entertaining? The answer to that is a definite yes. There is no doubt that Lippa's career warrants a revue, nor that he has earned his place among the post-Sondheim generation of composers and lyricists who have contributed to the resurgence of American musical theatre in the 21st century.

"The Life of the Party" is a well-executed introduction to Lippa's work (though sadly lacking any of the songs that he contributed to the 1999 revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown") and a must-see for Lippa's many fans.


What: "The Life of the Party," a musical revue presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Through Sept. 18, Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Cost: Tickets range from $19-$80.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

Freelance writer Kevin Kirby can be emailed at penlyon@peak.org.

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