Sonja (Ledisi) is “worn out and weary” from the toll that being a sex worker has taken on her. Audiences at New York City Center were recently worn out and weary but for a different reason: They had just endured a three-hour onslaught of noise and lecturing via Billy Porter’s reimagined staging of The Life, which ran March 16th through the 20th.
The Life, Cy Coleman, Ira Gasman, and David Newman’s musical about an overlooked and disenfranchised group of sex workers originally opened on Broadway in 1997 where it collected numerous Tony nominations and two wins for its leading stars, Lillias White and Chuck Cooper. It was not a perfect show, but it had heart, sincerity, and performances that still linger in the mind.
Porter, best known for his Tony award winning turn in Kinky Boots and from TV’s Pose acknowledged that these white gentlemen-though well intended-did not know how to accurately portray the humanity of this story through a black lens. His answer? To rewrite and direct the story, thanks to the blessing of the late Coleman, Gasman, and Newman’s estates. Fair enough.
Yet what we’re left with is a story that strays so far from its source material, it’s hardly recognizable. New characters have been added, relationships between them have been altered and songs have either been cut or moved around. Adding insult to an already injurious experience, music conductor and arranger James Sampliner determined that Tony, Emmy, and Grammy award winner Cy Coleman’s music needed improvement (the already flawless score didn’t). Yet, he went about adding a newer funk sound to every single number. At times, it was difficult to decipher what the original song was.
We’re also clobbered over the head by blatant messages surrounding race and trans lives that The Life comes off more like a public service announcement or a panel discussion and less like a piece of musical theater. Certainly, these are crucial topics that should remain at the forefront of our culture and entertainment. Yet here, they are revealed in manner that strays too far from character development and dialogue. Instead, they are solely a vessel for the writer’s agenda. The basic rule of theater creation, “Show, Don’t tell” is repeatedly broken.
Porter seems to think that his audience doesn’t have that much intellect. As the action toggles between 1980 and 2020, his leading men, Old Jojo (Destan Owens) and Young Jojo (Mykal Kilgore), sing the Act 2 opener, “Mr. Greed” by donning face masks of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. If you didn’t understand after the first few verses, the entire ensemble will cement it by wearing the same masks of the two former presidents for the rest of the number.
Incidentally, the original life had one Jojo character. Here, Old Jojo appears onstage all too often to deliver overly long explanations of what was happening and what would happen. As Officer Lockstock told Little Sally in Urinetown, “nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”
Porter’s cast is filled with fine performers, and it is a particular win that he has cast talented, trans actor Alexandra Grey in the leading role of Queen. The rest of his company–though seasoned- generally lack the gravitas needed to pull off the story with authenticity. They also tend to over sing by adding superfluous riffs and vocal flourishings instead of trusting in their own singing abilities. Ledisi is the exception. She inhabits the steeliness, grit, and vocal prowess required for the character of Sonja.
The Life is rarely performed, but it carries with it so much potential. Here, that potential has evolved into something so different that only remnants of its former self remain.
TV host Bill Maher remarked recently on his talk show, “You can buy a petting zoo and turn it into a bondage dungeon, but you’ve got to change the sign.” Ditto for this revamped production.
City Center Encores! Series continues May 5th-14th with an all-star revival of the Stephen Sondheim favorite, Into the Woods.
For tickets and information, visit NY City Center.