Review: ‘The Life’

First workshopped nearly seven years ago, "The Life," like the hookers it sings about, has been around the block enough times to pick up some nasty habits. A musical that can't make up its mind -- is it a cartoon? a gritty slice of Times Square? a Bob Fosse rip-off? all of the above? -- "The Life" wears its patchwork construction as obviously as its pimps wear wide-brimmed hats.

First workshopped nearly seven years ago, “The Life,” like the hookers it sings about, has been around the block enough times to pick up some nasty habits. A musical that can’t make up its mind — is it a cartoon? a gritty slice of Times Square? a Bob Fosse rip-off? all of the above? — “The Life” wears its patchwork construction as obviously as its pimps wear wide-brimmed hats.

Fairly or not, it’s virtually impossible to watch “The Life” without imagining the behind-the-scenes scrambling that occurred with each shift in public taste over the past seven years. “Rent” a hit? Quick, add some grimy street reality. “Chicago” a smash? Throw in the Fosse moves (choreographer Joey McKneely should follow Ann Reinking’s example and give the master his due in the credits). So profound is this musical’s identity crisis that even determining the year in which it’s set becomes a guessing game: “Caddyshack” posters and some tacked-on suggestions of AIDS pin the year at 1980, but the costumes and slang are stuck in the “Superfly” early ’70s.Since its initial 1990 workshop, “The Life,” with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman and book by David Newman, Gasman and Coleman, was recorded as a song compilation by an all-star roster of singers (none of whom, alas, are in the current cast). The recording makes sense: The Coleman-Gasman tunes (or at least a decent percentage of the too-crowded lineup) give spark to “Life.”

But with its impossibly hokey book and stock characters that have been working the streets since before the talkies, “The Life” chronicles the struggles of gold-hearted hookers and their mean old pimps in a manner that uneasily updates musical-theater convention. Imagine Coleman’s own Sweet Charity getting the stuff kicked out of her by a zebra-coated Huggy Bear and you’re fast approaching “The Life.”

Opening with a joke about Times Square’s recent Disney-fication (apparently tourists need reminding that the neighborhood wasn’t always “squeaky clean”), “The Life” quickly flashes back to what the program ambiguously refers to as “Then.” Remembering the old days is Jojo (Sam Harris), a bell-bottomed con man who serves as our host in the lowlife community. Through him we meet the plot’s central pair: Queen (Pamela Isaacs) and Fleetwood (Kevin Ramsey), a self-described “pair of empty-headed dreamers from the sticks” whose hopes for “a little house and a bunch of kids” have been dashed by harsh reality. The money Queen makes hooking goes right up Fleetwood’s nose.

At least in the beginning, Fleetwood’s a good-guy addict, snorting coke to ease his Vietnam flashbacks. But encouraged by Jojo to get serious about his pimping ambitions, Fleetwood soon seduces a fresh-scrubbed, just-off-the-bus blonde named Mary (Bellamy Young) into the Life. “Cheese and crackers,” says Mary, “my first day in New York and I’ve already got a job lined up.” Such grimace-inducing dialogue is only slightly excused later when Mary turns out not to be the naif she pretends she is. In any case, her arrival causes no end of trouble between Queen and Fleetwood, and soon Queen is casting her lot with Memphis (Chuck Cooper), a baadasssss pimp of blaxploitation vintage.

Queen announces her career move during act one’s pinnacle scene, set at the annual Hooker’s Ball. That’s right, the Hooker’s Ball. Without a trace of irony, “The Life” presents such “Guys and Dolls” hokum one minute, only to have Memphis smashing Queen’s bloody face into the furniture the next. Violence, addiction and the foreshadowing of AIDS share the stage with characters cutely named Frenchie, Oddjob, Slick and Snickers. To say “The Life” is out of touch with its subject matter is an understatement.

What saves “The Life” from its morality-tale melodrama (everyone pays for their sins) is the collection of songs, at least one standout performance and some fun, if derivative, dancing. Robin Wagner’s brick-wall set adds little to the show, and Martin Pakledinaz’s cartoony costumes are more tacky/

flamboyant than witty.

The big performance comes from Lillias White as Sonja, an aging prostitute handed the show’s best number, the comic “The Oldest Profession.” White so dominates the stage that “Life” lives up to its title whenever she appears. She and the other hookers (all shapes, sizes and races) have a grand time with “My Body,” a defense of their profession accompanied by “Big Spender” choreography, and the entire ensemble rises to “Why Don’t They Leave Us Alone,” another big, jaunty number.

Nowhere is the Fosse style more evident than in Harris’ songs, “Use What You Got” and “Mr. Greed,” both of which feature as much hip-swiveling, wrist-turning and hat-cocking poses as the “Chicago” revival three blocks south. Harris is a love-him-or-hate-him performer, his overwrought singing and James Cagney-meets-Ben Vereen performance style out of sync with the musical’s halfhearted attempts at real-life drama.

Generally, the cast is stronger in its singing than acting, never more so than with Young as the newcomer and Ramsey as Fleetwood. Only White is as good an actress as she is a vocalist (and that’s saying something), with even Isaacs, as Queen, surrendering to soap opera theatrics.

Reflecting the odd, schizoid battle between book and music, director Michael Blakemore usually fails to integrate the two, revealing the plot for what it is: an interruption of the songs, as intrusive as a missionary in a brothel.

The Life

Ethel Barrymore Theater; 1,076 seats; $75 top

Production

A Roger Berlind, Martin Richards, Cy Coleman and Sam Crothers presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman, and book by David Newman, Gasman and Coleman. Directed by Michael Blakemore.

Creative

Choreography, Joey McKneely; set, Robin Wagner; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Richard Pilbrow; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; music direction, Gordon Lowry Harrell; orchestrations, Don Sebesky, Harold Wheeler; dance and vocal arrangements, Coleman, Doug Katsaros; music coordinator, John Miller; casting, Julie Hughes, Barry Moss; associate producer, Frank Tarsia; general manager, Marvin A. Krauss. Opened April 26, 1997. Reviewed April 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.
Musical numbers: "Check It Out!," "Use What You Got," "A Lovely Day to Be Out of Jail," "A Piece of the Action," "The Oldest Profession," "Don't Take Much," "Go Home," "You Can't Get to Heaven," "My Body," "Why Don't They Leave Us Alone," "Easy Money," "He's No Good," "I'm Leaving You," "The Hooker's Ball," "Step Right Up," "Mr. Greed," "My Way or the Highway," "People Magazine," "We Had a Dream," " 'Someday' Is for Suckers," "My Friend," "We Gotta Go."

Cast

Cast: Sam Harris (Jojo), Lynn Sterling (Carmen), Sharon Wilkins (Chichi), Katy Grenfell (Frenchie), Judine Richard (Tracy), Mark Bove (Bobby), Michael Gregory Gong (Oddjob), Rudy Roberson (Silky), Mark Anthony Taylor (Slick), Chuck Cooper (Memphis), Felicia Finley (April), Gordon Joseph Weiss (Snickers), Vernel Bagneris (Lacy), Pamela Isaacs (Queen), Lillias White (Sonja), Kevin Ramsey (Fleetwood), Bellamy Young (Mary), Rich Hebert (Lou), Stephanie Michels (Doll House Dancer).
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