Thursday, 30 March 2017

Review The Life

The Life 
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Ira Gasman
Book by David Newman, Ira Gasman and Cy Coleman
Book Revisions by Michael Blakemore

The Ho's Opera

When TLT first arrived in New York, the clean-up of Times Square was well underway. As a yellow cab drew up, out stepped a guy, grabbed her suitcase - ready to put it in the cab. And then stayed expecting a tip.

TLT being English, buttoned up and then unused to habitually tipping, he didn't get one. A short, heated exchange ended with TLT's polite, "Thank you but I didn't ask. It was your choice to pick it up!!".

The somewhat bemused cab driver, a witness to TLT emerging unstabbed, unshot, with her traveller's money belt intact, shook his head in disbelief and then drove her to the Dickensian-monikered (and, naturally, budget) Pickwick Arms Hotel. He didn't even ask for a tip as she waited for him to count out the change for her note.

What prompts this memory of a pompously naive English girl on her first day in The Big Apple? Mary (Joanna Woodward) from Duluth, Minnesota in the Cy Coleman 1997 musical The Life, Samsonite in hand, fresh off the Greyhound bus sucked into Times Square sleaze when a guy grabs her suitcase.

Oh it could have been so very different for TLT.  Whatever The Life is, it ain't Heidi unless the 42nd Street panhandlers have a pension fund stashed away in a Swiss bank account.

The pocket-sized Southwark Playhouse stage plays host to a parade of pimps, hookers, gamblers, murderers, protection racketeers, mobsters and blue movie exhibitors on the piece of prime real estate off 42nd Street in nineteen seventy something.

In many ways this is a musical melodrama filled with stereotypes (but what musical isn't?) with a few twists lifted by thrilling performances from a cast who look like extras ready to be booked, charged or caged up  in the backgroud of many a 70s' cop show. And yet, and yet ...

It works. The book - decent hearted streetwalker Queenie (T'shan Williams) hooked up with no-good 'Nam vet boyfriend, cokehead pimp Fleetwood (David Albury) at its heart -  reflects and is driven on by the songs and vice (ouch!) versa.

With the swelling tones of an 11-piece band headed by Tamara Saringer, the angular corner-of-Times -Square set design  by Justin Nardella,  projections from Nina Dunn and compact choreography from Tom Jackson Greaves, this production is both successful on its own terms and shows the potential for a larger space.

The echos of other underworld musicals and styles, Sweet Charity (also from the Coleman repertoire), Guys and Dolls, Les Miz, Brechtian noir, West Side Story, even Mack and Mabel and Billy Joel amongst many others, and the corporatism of Chicago and The Godfather, are legion. But, rather than derivative, these are handled with a responsive, dark, smokey wit.

Mary turns out to have a backstory worthy of a David Mamet or Sam Shepherd searing drama and eventually takes to The Life like a Gypsy-Rose-Lee duck to water.

Stab-in-the-back Jojo (John Addison) has the Janus-face of the Times Square porn "talent scout" and Hollywood hustler in "Use What You Got" which could equally be in a musical version of that Hollywood users' manual "What Makes Sammy Run".

Jo Servi's bartender Lacy has the easy ways of old vaudeville Broadway while chief gangster Memphis (Cornell S John) trumps Jojo and Fleetwood in the power stakes, pulling in Queenie in the slow chains of "My Way Or The Highway". But it's Sharon D Clarke's old pro Sonja who carries off the laurels with a thrilling rendition of "The Oldest Profession" vibrating through the Southwark auditorium.

Maybe the ending is still slightly problematic as it almost dips into trench-coat parody but the power of the snarling face-off between Queenie and her haunted former soldier lover Fleetwood in "We Gotta Go" is a breathtaking musical theatre moment with a resonance beyond the hooker and the army vet.

Wait a moment, we take it back about Heidi tho', at least in terms of Hollywood history ...

It may seem churlish to mention one other thing after thrilling live performances fluently directed and staged by the original Broadway director, Brit stage veteran Michael Blakemore. But at a time when the mainstream movie industry is gagging for new musicals to film, The Life, in our opinion, cries out for an atmospheric movie version.

This fearless theatre production definitely gets the TLT green light. Oh, and if Hollywood  (West or East), Bollywood or Nollywood wants to option TLT's own taxi-cab penny-pinching New York tale with a Happy Ending, she's open to offers. ;)   

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