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Off Broadway Reviews

The Life

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 17, 2022

Alexandra Grey and Ledisi
Photo by Joan Marcus
Apparently, Encores! at New York City Center is no longer satisfied with being "the little engine that could." Not if you judge it by the current snazzy, jazzy, pizzazzy production of the 1997 David Newman, Ira Gasman, Cy Coleman musical The Life, which has been adapted and reshaped by its director Billy Porter into a full-blown Broadway-ready extravaganza.

Once upon a time, Encores! was the place you would go to for a handful of concert performances of rarely heard American musicals, usually with their original orchestrations. Librettos were cut down to their essentials. The cast members were given a few days of rehearsal time, and they took to the stage with scripts in hand. Costumes? Set design? Minimal. In more recent years, those scripts started to disappear and the performers took pride in learning their lines and, especially, the songs. But with The Life, we've entered a whole new realm, with a first-rate cast that could take over "America's Got Talent," supported by a stunning array of costumes (designed by Anita Yavich), Las Vegas-worthy lighting (Driscoll Otto), a scenic design by Clint Ramos, supplemented with Zachary Borovay's projections, and seemingly non-stop zippy choreography by AC Ciulla.

All of the design elements work collectively to take us back to the 1980s, when "New York City was the prostitution capital of these entire United States," to quote the show's narrator, Old Jojo (Destan Owens), recalling in contemporary time what it was like in the world of street hustlers, hookers, and pimps. That is the world of The Life, a musical that relies on a preponderance of clichés and a seemingly endless display of power numbers aimed at stopping the show.

Here the men are untrustworthy two-timing lugs like Fleetwood (Ken Robinson), untrustworthy cowards like Young Jojo (Mykal Kilgore), or untrustworthy bullying snakes like Memphis (Antwayn Hopper). The streets are Memphis's domain, and the buff bass-baritone Hopper plays it to the hilt, a combination of Sportin' Life and Crown from Porgy and Bess. Ah, but the women. They are a tough bunch, working the streets because they feel they have no other choice, but somehow maintaining their dignity and their hearts. There are three of them at center: Queen (Alexandra Grey), Sonja (Ledisi, a force of nature!), and Mary (Erika Olson), the seemingly innocent blonde from Duluth, whose hard-won experience and manipulative know-how belie her looks. All three long to escape the prison of their lives; whether any of them do is a major plot point.

The Life is nothing if not a showcase for these terrific performers. And Cy Coleman's score is nothing if not eclectic, drawing from jazz, swing, blues, torch songs, anthemic melodies and more. In place of usual Encores! orchestra conductor Rob Berman, there is an exceptionally fine guest conductor, James Sampliner, who has provided new arrangements and orchestrations. Encores! purists may gasp, but the music and the musicianship could not be in better hands.

Kudos to Billy Porter for building such a majestic and muscular production. But truth be told, there's an awful lot to take in. The show itself runs over two-and-half hours, what with so many center-of-the-stage solos along with the insertion of several social justice messages. And despite Porter's tinkering with and rearranging things into a "morality tale for our times," the storyline itself suffers from a heavy abundance of platitudes about its subject matter. The Life might be better served if it were treated as an opera, a form where clichéd content is seen as de rigueur.

The Life
Through March 20, 2022
Encores! at New York City Center, 131 W 55th St, New York NY.
Tickets online and current performance schedule: