A group of hookers and pimps tells us to “use what you got” at the beginning of Cy Coleman, Ira Gasman, and David Newman’s musical The Life, but in this concert production at City Center, director and adaptor Billy Porter doesn’t exactly follow their advice. Taking most of the score from the 1997 Broadway production and leaving it mostly in place, Porter adds a framing device to the book that almost works in the concert format.
The revision would be unstageable under normal terms–its preachy sermonizing is less than dramatic–but when presented by a book-in-hand narrator as it is here, its bluntness doesn’t need to be disguised as plot. This is the message Porter wants delivered, direct from the page. For a while, Encores! productions have been on a path toward becoming more traditionally staged musicals, but there’s something refreshing about one that insists it’s a concert.
Where recent offerings at City Center have had large set pieces, Porter and set designer Clint Ramos opt for a mostly bare stage with large, but low-fi, projections and a couple pieces of furniture, doubling down on the concert vibes. The furniture is all painted the same shade of slightly dingy red, creating a believable atmosphere with very little. The projections, by Zachary Borovay, are static images of Port Authority under construction or animal-print wallpaper that set the tone and place without needing to appear realistic. The simplicity of the stagecraft lets the words and music be front and center.
The numbers are fully staged, with electric choreography by AC Ciulla, and the colorful costumes, by Anita Yavich, pop against the otherwise bare stage, but there’s still a pervading aura that, if this were a full production, the choreography would look different and the costumes would be more detailed. Yavich’s clothes are all very clean, something that belies the grittiness of the characters’ lives and is easily fixed with more time and a larger budget. Memphis describes Queen’s dress as having “all them beads and shiny things,” but what she’s wearing has nary a bead or sequin. It still looks gorgeous on Alexandra Grey, and it’s a concert, so who cares. The choreography, likewise, feels scaled back for the limited rehearsal time, but successfully embodies the score, especially when the ensemble is dancing back up to Antwayn Hopper’s Memphis.
Porter’s revisions are so close to working in this format, but the narration he gives to Destan Owens’ Old Jojo is too wordy. It requires a dexterousness that Owens is unable to deliver, maybe due to the limited rehearsal time or maybe because Porter’s voice is so strong in the text it’s hard to hear anything other than the author’s own mellifluous fluency with language. If Owens were more comfortable with the text, the sometimes clunky lecturing of Porter’s book might feel more natural.
The revisions succeed even less when Porter abridges or repositions the existing book. There is a lack of cohesion. Characters fight at the end of one scene, but when they next encounter each other, it’s like nothing ever happened. The showstopping number “My Body” comes out of nowhere after a doctor’s office visit ends abruptly, making the song about a woman’s right to…seek medical attention? It still slays–it’s a jam–but it doesn’t have the same burn-it-to-the-ground energy as it does in the original context where the women are responding to the NYPD. Porter doesn’t recontextualize “He’s No Good”, The Life’s version of “As Long As He Needs Me”, where Queen, left to rot in jail while Fleetwood has a threesome, sings about how he sucks, but she can’t live without him. It’s gross, and she does leave him a scene later, so its inclusion is not justified.
Porter does shift Sonja’s retirement anthem “The Oldest Profession” from Act One to the eleven o’clock slot and it lets Ledisi go nuts, pulling out all the stops and bringing the crowd to its feet. It would have killed in its original placement in Act One, but there’s no need for restraint where Porter places it. All bets are off, the world is crashing down around them, so Sonja can just let loose. Ledisi sounds incredible, not just here, but in “My Body” and “Somebody’s Out There Waiting”, too. She has a captivating presence, more so than anyone else on the stage, and she leaves you gasping for more.
She also finds a nuance in her singing that some of the other actors lack. Mykal Kilgore as Young Jojo and Erika Olson as Mary sound great, but they’re hitting their vocal lines so hard and the sound design (by Kai Harada and Magumi Katayama) is so loud that it’s often difficult to hear anyone else–or the band–when they’re onstage. The mix feels skewed to bring the loudest singers to the foreground at the expense of everything else. It was often so unbearably loud that I could not hear anything beyond the ringing in my ears.
Antwayn Hopper was a standout as Memphis, the Mephistophelean pimp who seeks to steal Queen from Fleetwood and get her under his control (and in his bed). His voice is deep and rich, almost to the point of sounding like a Disney villain, but before it goes there, it comes back around to feel truthful and terrifying. As Queen, Alexandra Grey delivers a muted performance compared to everyone around her, but her simplicity allows us to feel empathy with her, to connect and relate to her as she moves around inside this tornado. Her singing is gorgeous, especially when she and Ledisi come together on the duet, “My Friend.”
Porter is taking big swings with this production and some of them pay off, while others could have used a little more time in the rehearsal room or in another draft of the script. Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman’s score still kicks ass, particularly in the new orchestrations by James Sampliner that bring more of an ‘80s feel to the music. This is a passion project for Porter and you feel that. He has a lot of ideas and he’s throwing them all at the stage. In a curtain speech, Destan Owens said that the entire production was put together in eight days. It does feel like it, but there’s a kernel of something special still there just about to pop.