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Review: Billy Porter's The Life Is the New Low Bar for Encores!

Porter razes and revises a not very good musical, and somehow makes it even worse.

Antwayn Hopper as Memphis in The Life
(© Joan Marcus)

Few contemporary musicals are as ripe for the Encores! treatment as The Life. Not seen in New York since its original yearlong run (1997-98), The Life is most notable for boasting the final Broadway score of the legendary Cy Coleman and making stars out of actors Lillias White and Chuck Cooper. But ignore those 12 Tony nominations it got in a relatively slow season — nobody would accuse The Life of actually being a good show. Reviewers called this tale of hookers and pimps in pre-Disneyfied Times Square "impossibly hokey" and said it "reeks of bottom-drawer, B-movie melodrama."

For Encores!, the estates of writers Coleman, Ira Gasman (lyrics), and David Newman (all of whom had a hand in the book) have given adaptor/director Billy Porter carte blanche to do whatever he wants to the show — it's been sitting on the shelf this long, so why not? But Porter's new script ends up even worse than the original. In a noble effort to give a cartoony musical a social conscience, Porter has concocted a disjointed mess that lays on the City Center stage like a lump, and they pump the volume to painful, ear-piercing levels if only to keep the audience awake. I watched with envy as some of the audience left at intermission.

Porter keeps the overall thrust of the show the same: It's the story of a motley arrangement of sex workers doggedly trying to get out of The Life. At the center is Queen (Alexandra Grey), a woman with a secret who has started turning tricks to support her cocaine-dependent, Vietnam-vet husband Fleetwood (Ken Robinson). The violent pimp Memphis (Antwayn Hopper) is in love with Queen and will stop at nothing to get her in his stable of pros (until, well, he finds something that stops him). Fleetwood, meanwhile, falls for a fresh-off-the-bus Minnesotan named Mary (Erika Olson), and sees in this beautiful blonde the opportunity to make some easy money. And then there's Sonja (Ledisi), the veteran prostitute who's "getting too old for the oldest profession" and may or may not have the disease not-yet-named AIDS. Narrating is Jojo (Destan Owens and Mykal Kilgore as older and younger versions), one of the men from back in the day who is telling us about that five-day span in the underbelly of Times Square.

Even if the execution was kind of silly, the heart of The Life has always been in the right place, as the writers tried to make the audience think twice about the folks plying their trade outside Port Authority. The heart of Porter's production is in the right place, too, as he makes the politics (and, most especially, the treatment of the Black characters) of the show a little less retrograde. That would be fine on its own, but Porter's additions are embarrassingly heavy-handed, removing whatever comedy there was and replacing it all with a battering ram of political speechifying that doesn't trust the audience to get it on its own.

There are some highlights. The real showstopper, as it's always been, is "My Body," a number that always kills. Ledisi's "The Oldest Profession" is almost worth the two-and-a-half hour wait (wisely or unwisely, this first-act showstopper has been shifted to the eleven o'clock slot) and earned a standing ovation on opening night (still, I believe White's version is definitive). Hopper also stops the show with "My Way or the Highway," though his book scenes are less successful. Grey, who, as far as I can tell, is making her stage debut, struggles to keep up, but it's not entirely her fault. Queen has to sing at least half a dozen variations on the same boring song, and even in the original, the result was soporific at best.

Ultimately, it's obvious that Porter wanted to turn The Life into something that it's not, and the show itself, while not particularly well-built, is strong enough to resist it at every turn. The push-pull is particularly disastrous in the music department, where conductor James Sampliner has rearranged Coleman's big-band score with a more Funkadelic feel. Groovy? Certainly. Does it sound good? Hell no. Does it even sound like Coleman anymore? Also no.

The new orchestrations render the music unintelligible (the never-ending ballads suck the air right out of the room), and the band is so loud that it throws the cast off (Kai Harada and Megumi Katayama's sound design makes your ears ring). More than once, the ensemble had trouble keeping up with the tempo, and the leading actors often found themselves with a surprising amount of difficulty getting to the right notes. They literally can't hear themselves.

The Encores! rehearsal period is remarkably short — two weeks or thereabouts. Still, Porter's staging is astonishingly unpolished for a main attraction in the New York City Center season. The band trails off while transitions are still in process, so the stage sits in silence as actors push on the same door frame and chaise lounge for every scene (the set, or lack thereof, is by Clint Ramos, the new Encores! producing creative director). Anita Yavich's costumes look straight off the rack from Spirit Halloween. And there are more than a few moments in the second act that feel like they've simply just run out of time.

There's a certain quality we've come to expect from Encores! Even if the show isn't good, you know it's going to at least have some merit. The Life is the most disappointingly sung and played Encores! production I've ever seen, and that doesn't feel very much like Encores! at all.

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