The ubiquitous Billy Porter was given command of the most recent New York City Center Encores! presentation, the 1997 musical The Life. His direction and re-interpretation of this tawdry portrait of 42nd Street left a great deal to be desired, but strong performances by the leading players made vivid impressions.
Originally written by the estimable Cy Coleman (music/book), Ira Gasman (lyrics/book) and David Newman (book), The Life is set in the 1980’s as seen from the point of view of a narrator, Old JoJo (Destan Owens, fine in a thankless, add-on role) who observed and commented on his past which included watching himself, Young JoJo (Mykal Kilgore, fine singer, but looking nothing like his counterpart) behave badly. The concert adaptation was by Porter himself.
The characters were divided between prostitutes and pimps, all tarted out in Anita Yavich’s colorfully flamboyant period costumes topped by Tom Watson’s wigs.
The two lead streetwalkers were long-time 42nd Street denizen, Sonja (a vibrant, huge-voiced Ledisi who stopped the show with her anthem “The Oldest Profession”) and Queen, here, in contrast with the original, a trans woman played with poise by the lithe Alexandra Grey. The third leading lady was the interloper from Duluth, the blonde and very white Mary (Erika Olson who was terrific as she revealed her devilish ulterior motives).
Their men treat them badly, pimping them out and cheating on them. Ken Robinson was strong and appealing as Queen’s initially understanding lover, Fleetwood. Antwayn Hopper was the evil Memphis who also nearly stopped the show with his sensual belting in “My Way, or the Highway.”
The entire ensemble appeared to enjoy performing Ac Ciulla’s crotch grabbing, hip pumping choreography, but Bob Fosse did it with more finesse in Sweet Charity.
Porter, in a self-indulgent and heavy-handed attempt at updating The Life to make it more meaningful, had the Old JoJo lecture the audience about the need for laws to protect the trans community. However well-meaning, these interjections stopped the show cold, turning a well crafted musical into a lecture-demonstration.
None of the numbers in the score are anywhere near as memorable as Coleman’s work in Sweet Charity or Little Me, nor helped by Michael McElroy’s overly funky arrangements. The cast, however, performed the songs with verve and style.
Porter certainly kept the pace racing but did himself in by burdening The Life with his “helpful” additions.
The Life (March 16 – 20, 2022)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission