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A CurtainUp Review

Life


Don't waste a lot of time, looking for that red platform-soled shoe from the advance ads for the show--a flashy contrast to the refined sepia dazzlers used to advertise other current musicals. It's worn by a transvestite hooker in Act 2...so relax and enjoy this not very romantic look back at Times Square and its sleazier environs circa 1980.

As for that line "you're not in Kansas any more" it probably should be Minnesota. That's the state that most often came up in eighties' muckraking stories about young girls stepping off a bus at the Port of Authority bus terminal on 42nd Street and into a life of prostitution. It's also the home state of Mary (Bellamy Young) the innocent-looking blonde in The Life, the latest and most darkly cynical of the bus load of new musicals to arrive in town this month.

To go back to the beginning. Enjoy? A musical about hookers and pimps in the anything goes sex and drug filled pre-gentrification Times Square? What's to enjoy about such a repulsive subject? What's to sing about? For whom in such a world could you possibly rustle up even a shred of sympathy? Apparently, despite Cy Coleman's proven record as a composer of winning musicals ( City of Angels, another but quite different show about a hooker, Sweet Charity), a lot of potential backers considered The Life a highly iffy proposition. Yet, after ten years and with the concept album preceding an actual show, that much advertised high platform red shoe has stepped onto Barrymore's stage where it may just keep dancing for a solid run.

I'm somewhat amazed to report that this show about the low life vibrates with more energy and foot-tapping, hummable music than some of its more high profile predecessors on the Broadway scene. It may not be up to Cy Coleman's best shows though it's miles above The Will Rogers Follies and the book, (a collaboration with David Newman and Ira Gasman), is hardly a study of originality, but it's got pizazz and a definite point of view.

Yes, it is tasteless, what they used to call a tits-and-ass kind of musical, with all the flashiness the term brings to mind. Yes, despite its politically correct interchangeable black/white characters, it is likely to offend more than a few people of any skin color. And no, you shouldn't bring the kids or your aunt from Ft. Wayne or grandmother in Garden City to see it. But these caveats aside, The Life delivers what it promises: An edgy, high-stepping, melodrama-filled, tuneful portrait of the dark underbelly of a life style with little to recommend it. It is a life associated with the Times Square in the early eighties because that's where and when it was most visible. It is also a life that's hardly past history as will be evident to anyone who walks along Eighth Avenue, (north of the bus terminal) or any tough section of this or another city. Like Rita Racine the heroine of Steel Pier, the heroine of The Life, yearns to get out of her rough and tumble life. But the life Queen (Pamela Isaacs) is in makes Rita Racine's marathon stints seem like a series of high school proms. The only dance in her life is an underworld event known as the Hooker's Ball. Loving Fleetwood ( Kevin Ramsey), a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran has turned the former choir singer into his girl for sale. When we first meet her she's fresh out of jail after a police roundup. Instead of leaving Memphis while the going is still just a matter of packing her suitcase and catching the next bus back home, she fools herself into believing they can turn their lives around. As their operatic love story unfolds, we meet the other denizens of the city's sex and drug dealing life who frequent a bar run by a genial (are there any other kind?) bartender (Vernel Bagneris).

The standout in the large cast of low lifes is Lillias White as Sonya, the perennial tough but tender hearted hooker who's worn out from having 15,000 men-- as totaled up with the bartender's calculator. Her powerfully bluesy lament "I'm getting too old for the oldest profession. . .I'm getting too old for the half hour session" is one of several deserved foot-stomping "yeah-yeah-yeah" show stoppers. She and Isaacs represent the show's greatest strengths both in terms of character empathy, (their friendship is the real love story) and singing. Less sympathetic but the most interesting supporting player is the previously mentioned Mary Sunshine type from Minnesota which marks a most auspicious Broadway debut for Bellamy Young. Chuck Cooper is appropriately evil as the big bad pimp, and his main number, "My Way or the Highway" shows off his resonant bass voice. Sam Harris plays the smarmy "you got to get what you want" Jojo but his boyish good looks get in the way of his being totally convincing. Kevin Ramsey's Fleetwood is fine too, as is the entire ensemble. In the final analysis, it's the women, at least off stage, who are in command of The Life.

Michael Blakemore has directed the show with great style and even managed to deflect the Bob Fossey wannabe qualities of Joey McKneeley's choreography. Too bad he falls short in not putting the brakes on the endless reprises. Not only are some of the songs sung too often, but some actually latch onto themselves. Editing these excesses would result in a much-needed half hour cut. The Life may be operatic, but going to operatic lengths is a conceit for a musical that's lively but hardly a classic.

Robin Wagner uses a bleak brick wall as an apt backdrop that at times reveals other simple but effective sets. That wall and the steel fence along which the hookers line up to do their highway "tricks" embodies the great divide that keep them trapped in lives in which "dreams is all we've got." Last but by no means least, kudos to Martin Pakledinaz for his wonderfully gross costumes. Like everything about this show its look will have theater goers who are game for an unsanitized version of Rent applauding even as they hold their noses.

THE LIFE book by David Newman, Ira Gasman, Cy Coleman
Music by Cy Coleman, Lyrics by Ira Gasman
Starring Pamela Isaacs, Kevin Ramsey, Lillas White, Sam Harris
Directed by Michael Blakemore
Choreography: Joey McKneely
Sets: Robin Wagner
Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz. Barrymore, 242 W. 47 St. (212) 239-6200
Opening date 4/28/97
6/01--Ed Note: While the musical garnered 12 Tony nominations
the big winner in the end was Titanic. It remains to be seen if Chuck Cooper's
and Lillias White's best featured actor/actress awards will keep the show going!
Closed 6/07/98
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 5/11/98
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Check It Out! . The Company
  • Use What You Got. Jojo and The Company
  • A Lovely Day To Be Out Of Jail. Queen, Sonja
  • A Piece Of The Action . Fleetwood
  • The Oldest Profession . Sonja
  • Don't Take Much . Memphis
  • Go Home . Queen, Mary
  • You Can't Get To Heaven . Queen, Sonja, Street Evangelists
  • My Body . Frenchie, Chichi, Tracy, Carmen, Sonja, Queen, April
  • Why Don't They Leave Us Alone. Oddjob, Bobby, Silky, Slick, Snickers, April, Carmen, Chichi, Frenchie, Queen, Sonja, Tracy
  • Easy Money . Mary, Jojo, Fleetwood
  • He's No Good . Queen
  • l'm Leaving You . Queen
  • The Hooker's Ball. Lacy and The Company
Act Two
  • Step Right Up. Enrique, Slick, Oddjob, Bobby
  • Mr. Greed . Jojo, Bobby, Enrique, Oddjob, Slick
  • My Way Or The Highway. Memphis, Queen
  • People Magazine Lou, Mary
  • We Had A Dream . Queen
  • Use What You Got (Reprise) . Mary, Lou, Jojo
  • 'Someday' Is For Suckers . Sonja, Frenchie, April, Shatellia, Carmen, Chichi
  • My Friend . Queen, Sonja
  • We Gotta Go . Fleetwood Queen
  • Check It Out'! (Reprise) . The Company
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