Back in 1997, I was watching the Tony Awards when I saw a performance by one of the nominated musicals, “The Life”, by Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman (book by Coleman, Gasman, and David Newman (who also did “Oh Calcutta” and “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman”). The song “My Body” (video) just blew me away. I went out and got the cast album; but sadly, a production never made its way to the west coast. Until now.
Last night, we went to the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood to see the Los Angeles premiere of the Jaxx Theatrical’s production of “The Life”. “The Life” tells the story of a group of prostitutes and their pimps in New York. It focuses on the character arc of Queen, who is in love with her man, Fleetwood, and dreams of making enough money to escape the Life. Returning from yet another stint in jail, Queen discovers that Fleet has sent their savings up his nose. Working with Jojo the hustler, Fleet attempts to expand his business by adding fresh-off-the-bus Mary, while Queen is on the street with her friend, Sonja. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Mary moves up fast, loving the easy money and attracting Fleet from Queen. This sends Queen into the clutches of Memphis, a menacing pimp who rapidly saddles her with a debt that she must work to pay off. She tries to escape, but the thugs and Memphis won’t let her. Things escalate, culminating in tragedy and death. Queen does escape, but at what price?
Unlike Coleman’s previous prostitution musical, “Sweet Charity”, this is a very dark musical, especially in Act 2. There is significant violence against women (as does exist on those streets), and the life is not romanticized as often happens in the musicals. This is a musical that would make an especially good transition to film: it could capture the grit and hardness even stronger, and could be quite remarkable. It is strong, it is cynical, it is assertive, it is in your face, and it is touching. It is not an easy story; it is not a gay hearted romp through Oz or even Nazi Germany.
This production was particularly strong, owing to excellent performances by the cast. Let’s go to the hookers first (I’ve always wanted to say that). Queen was played by Dionne Gipson (), a talented young actress who could not only sing and dance, but had the dramatic skills to stand up to Memphis’ beating and abuse, yet still convey fragility. Her best friend was Sonja, played by Cheryl Murphy-Johnson. Here we have another wonderful singer and actor, who can belt out a song, but play the exhausted hooker to the hilt. You can see her sing “The Oldest Profession” in this You-Tube clip. Also notable was Stephanie Girardæ as Mary, the fresh girl off the bus who moves to Go-Go Dancing and on to a better life in the adult industry in Los Angeles. Yet another powerful singer who was also able to convey both innocence and cynicism. Rounding out the hookers — all powerful singers and dancers — were Willam Belliæ (his/her blog) as April, Mara Hall as Chi-Chi, Taryn Reneauæ as Carmen, Cindy Sciacca as Frenchie, and Robin Ray Elleræ as Tracy. Lastly, in a truly walk-on performance, was Tiffany Tang as the new girl in town.
[æ denotes members of Actors Equity ]
Turning to the male cast members, there are four who deserve special notice. Playing JoJo, a hustler, was Ethan Le Phongæ, who we have seen previously in Pippin and Mask. Ethan gave a very Fosse-esqe performance, just gliding in and out, singing and dancing super strong. You can see a video of him doing “Mr. Greed” here. Robert Geeæ played Fleetwood, Queen’s vietnam-vet boyfriend/pimp. Another strong singer and actor, with afro to boot… he was just great. David St. Louisæ played a menacing and violent Memphis (I kept imagaining Avery Brooks) — again, strong singing and acting skills, especially in the confrontation with Queen after the Hooker’s Ball. Speaking of the Hooker’s Ball (yes, there really is one), Samuel Redrunningbear Savageæ played Lacy, the proprieter of the ball and the host of the local hooker hangout. Savage was an extremely strong singer and dancer, and I particularly enjoyed his dancing in the Hooker’s Ball number. Rounding out the male cast was Joshua Campbell as Snickers, Rusty Hamrick as Slick, D.T. Matiasæ as Enrique, Tony Melsonæ as Bobby, and Chris Cobb Olsenæ as Lou.
The set itself was very plain, mostly open space with the band in back. A bed was moved onstage when necessary, as was a bar. The set design was by Brett Snodgrass. The sound design by Eric Snodgrass was mostly unnoticible (except for cell phone interference), although I got the feeling it wasn’t necessary given the power of the singers and the smallness of the room. The lighting design by John Ryman was good, eschewing the use of spots, and instead using LED lights and effective pre-positioned lights. Costumes were by Dan Selon with makup by L. B. Benson — both were excellent, although the costumes should have been a bit more revealing and risque than they were. The choreography was by Paul Romero Jr. assisted by Erin Spencer and was reasonably strong, although Le Phong’s numbers seemed very Fosse-esque and different than the rest. Direction (both musical and otherwise) was by Joe Green. The on-stage band was excellent: conducted by Alex Georgakis, it included Georgrakis on piano, Takashi Iio on bass, Ryan Stern on trumpet, Nicholas Sobko on reeds, Kristina Raymond and Colin Woodford on drums, and Brett Fisher on keyboards and trombone. Matthew Sandlin was stage manager, assisted by Karen Baughn. The show was produced by Justine Baldwin, Mark Espinosa, and Jeremy Lucas of Jaxx Theatricals.
The last performance of “The Life” is tonight, December 21, at 8pm.
One last note about “The Life”: If you haven’t heard the album, give it a listen, it has some great music. There was another album, “Music From The Life”, which was a “concept” album featuring covers of songs from the show by name artists. George Burns, in his last performance, basically spoke the song “Easy Money” — and doing so, changed it from a song about how easy it was to make money as an adult star to a song about how easy it was to make money as a aging former valdvillian. Reading the lyrics again, it seems to be the perfect song for the times that led to the recent recession:
I’m learnin’ how to make it
You just reach out and take it
Ain’t it funny how things can change
My take home really’ was low
I never knew 1t was so…
Just give ’em what they came for
Just smile and play the game for…
Don’t let it end
Oh that easy money
Is so easy to spend
Dining Notes: Last night we made a big mistake, and drove to Hollywood and Highland, thinking we would have time to eat before the show. Remind me never to do that again — traffic was horrible with the club scene and the tourists, and we barely had time to grab a coffee at Kelly’s. Next time, we take the red line, as it stops right there. So we went to dinner after the show at Jan’s Coffee Shop.
That should be it for our 2008 theatre, unless something pops up in the next week. It has been a great year of theatre here in Los Angeles. Movies are static: the performance never changes once recorded. Live is something special — especially in a 99-seat equity-waiver house, it brings you up close with the actor, and draws you into a story as a movie never can. Go see a musical or play today — you won’t regret it.
As for us, the 2009 theatre season is starting on January 17th brings “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. The next few weeks are still to be ticketed, but my thinking as as follows: “Cabaret” by the Aerospace Players (Jan 30-Feb 7) on the Jan 31 W/E; “Minsky’s at the Ahmanson (Jan 21 – Mar 1) on the Feb 7 W/E (Hottix on sale 12/30); “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Rep East (Jan 23 – Feb 21) on the Feb 14 W/E. February 21 brings “Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Lastly, March 12 through21 will bring “Little Shop of Horrors” at Van Nuys High School. I’m sure more will join the 1Q09 list as I peruse Goldstar Events, a wonderful way to find half-price tickets.