‘The Life’ Review: Turning More Than Some New Stuff
In case you forgot the premise behind Reaganomics, “The Life” musical features an introduction just before a large number at the top of Act 2: it was based on “the proposition that corporate taxes should be reduced as a way to stimulate business investment in the short term and benefit society as a whole in the long term.
And five, six, seven, eight!
Not only is that dialogue leaden — especially coming from a young pimp — but it’s not in “The Life” as we know it: the musical that opened last night as is part of the New York City Center Encores! series was radically reconfigured from the one that premiered on Broadway in 1997.
At the time, composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Ira Gasman crafted “Mr. Greed” as a cynical showstopper – very much in the vein of Kander and Ebb – in which ’80s pimps and con artists playing three-card mounts explain that their best ally is greed that blinds the marks of their own madness.
Now Billy Porter – who adapted the book by Coleman, Gasman and David Newman and directed this production – is putting Trump and Reagan masks on the ensemble members and having them sing and dance their denunciation of an ideology. The number is of a stylistic and aesthetic piece with Porter’s take on the show, which privileges systemic oppression at the expense of individual characterizations. Whether it’s a track with “The Life”, well, that’s another thing.
There are many changes in the book, but the most structurally significant is the decision to frame the story as a flashback told, decades after the events, by sleazy operator Jojo. He’s now, he informs us, a successful publicity agent in Los Angeles, but in the ’80s he was an entrepreneurial minnow in Times Square at its seediest. (Anita Yavich’s costumes are colorfully vintage, though they feel more grounded in a 1970s disco-funk vibe than the cooler Reaganite decade.)
Old Jojo (Destan Owens) is our guide to the characters, which include prostitutes Queen (Alexandra Grey) and Sonja (Ledisi), as well as their protectors and abusers, like Vietnam veteran Fleetwood (Ken Robinson) and the brutal pimp. Memphis (Antwayn Hopper).
Jojo also regularly comments on the action, often casting a remorseful eye over the behavior of her younger self, played by Mykal Kilgore. (Owens plays other characters as well, which leads to a rather confusing conversation with Queen that makes you wonder if Porter has scrambled the space-time continuum, on top of everything else.)
Unfortunately, the musical format of the memoir only takes us out of the plot and, more importantly, the emotional impact. Whenever we’re engrossed in the events of the 1980s, the older Jojo pops up with explainer stories, clumsy write-ups, and numbing lectures. The original show gradually introduces us to the distinct personalities of the characters through gestures, words and songs; now they are archetypal pawns in an editorial. One can agree with a message and yet find its missing form.
Changes abound throughout the evening. Moving Sonja’s “The Oldest Profession” to the second act turns it into an 11-hour number for Ledisi, a Grammy-winning singer who accompanies her and provides the show’s most exciting moment.
Others may feel devoted. The original setup of the empowerment anthem “My Body,” which the company memorably performed at the 1997 Tony Awards (“The Life” had 12 nominations), was the working women’s response to a group of moralizing bible-thumpers.
Now, the song follows a visit to a Midtown clinic “founded by a group of ex-prostitutes who found doctors to partner with and who actually went through this Hippocratic oath situation,” as explained. Old Joe. There, Sonja is treated for throat thrush and Queen, who is now transgender, receives injections. The transition to “My Body” feels both literal and abrupt, and we miss the antagonists.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Porter said he thought “the comedy did the storytelling a disservice” in the original production, which was conceived by white creators and largely dealt with black characters. . But while he added plenty of stories, especially for Fleetwood, Sonja, and Queen, his version also features a few new jokes as well as some unfortunate big fun deals.
Young Jojo is pretty bad in that regard, but Memphis suffers the most. As a Tony-winning Chuck Cooper described it in 1997, his calm amplified his threat: he was a scary Luciferian guy. Now, Memphis is a Blaxploitation cartoon that can be incredibly flamboyant, like when he hijacks one of Queen’s key scenes by preening his shirtless. Hopper, who sings in a velvety bass-baritone, has such weird abs that for a moment I wondered if the show was somehow using live CGI.
In addition to the meta business, Memphis is also prone to fourth-wall-breaking nods, such as when he complimented guest bandleader James Sampliner on his arrangements.
Because these too are new. Coleman, equally at home delivering pop earworms in “Sweet Charity” and artful operetta pastiches in “On the Twentieth Century”, was one of Broadway’s most glorious songwriters, and “The Life,” orchestrated by Don Sebesky and Harold Wheeler (from “The Wiz” and “Dreamgirls”) was an interesting fusion of brassy impulses rooted in a musical theater idiom. But Sampliner’s R&B and funk-inspired orchestrations and arrangements undermine the score’s idiosyncrasies.
For better or for worse – especially for worse here – Regietheater, the German practice of radically reinterpreting a play, musical or opera, has come to Encores. Whether it be Which way this series belongs – which debuted in 1994 to offer short runs of understated concert-style musicals and has traditionally been about reconstruction rather than deconstruction – is an open question.
Rethinking can be welcome, even necessary, in musical theater – Daniel Fish’s production of “Oklahoma!”, currently touring the country, is a particularly successful example.
The traditionally archival-minded Encores have expanded their mission statement to include that artists “reclaim the work of our time through their own personal lens.” It’s clear that the series is entering a new phase, but for many of us long-time fans, it’s also a little sad to lose such a unique showcase.
Through March 20 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Duration: 2h45.