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Chicago by John Olson

The Life
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

The Life
Aaron Holland and Tawny Newsome
Cy Coleman's last show, The Life, was something of an anomaly among that composer's work. With its story of Times Square hookers and pimps in the mid-'70s, it's much darker than his other musicals. Using idioms he knew well - jazz, blues and showtunes - it comes close to being an urban opera. Though it's not sung through, the emotions therein are of operatic scope.

The Life doesn't quite achieve those ambitions, though. While the action realistically includes cruelty and violence, and in the end paints a believably grim picture of life in the sex trade, it also has lapses back into musical comedy land that work against it. There's a big stretch in the first act that is just too much fun for us to be worrying about the well-being of these women, beginning with "My Body," in which the working girls assert their right to earn their living as they please. The best song in the show, it could work as an assertion of pride in a degrading profession if it weren't followed by a corny little song and dance for the pimps, "Why Don't They Leave Us (Businessmen) Alone," and the almost vaudevillian "Easy Money" sung by a porn film producer and his new starlet. When the act closes with the Duke Ellington-esque "Hooker's Ball" the tension set up earlier in the show pretty much evaporates. It's not until we get past the second act opener, a song and dance for the duplicitous hustler JoJo, that the tension rebuilds and the tone again matches its subject matter.

Director Stephen M. Genovese has some success in evening out the tone. His cast gives hard-edged performances, and the action is placed amidst a Times Square set by John Zuiker that represents the district's back alleys rather than the bright lights of the old 42nd Street. Theresa Ham's costumes show the girls' attempts at bargain basement sex appeal while Matt Kooi's lighting suggests the dimly lit back alleys and dark bars of the zone. Genovese has the cast occasionally address audience members directly from the thrust stage, as if we were tourists in the Big Apple, and it helps to further bring us in to the environment. Still, the cute and upbeat numbers that break the tension keep the piece from becoming entirely the heartbreaking and gut-wrenching critique of losers in the big city that was itself down at the heels (and literally bankrupt) in the '70s. One has to wonder if Coleman and the producers (of which he was one) didn't quite have the guts to put something that dark on Broadway without a significant dose of comic relief and showmanship.

The Coleman score is a great vehicle for a terrific young cast. The physically and vocally beautiful Tawny Newsome as Queen makes the most of her first lead role. She's as regal as a streetwalker can be and tough enough to make you believe she'll get out of the life. The imposing Bethany Thomas, with a voice big enough to fill all three stages at the Theatre Building, is a perfect choice for Sonja (played by Lillias White on Broadway). Anthony Fett (Burrs in Bohemian's Wild Party of two years ago) makes a welcome return to Chicago as JoJo, and though his character charms the others onstage, he lets the audience know what a slimeball the guy really is. Even while Fett is selling "Use What You've Got" and "Greed," the kind of presentational numbers song and dance men use to flirt with an audience, he's deliberately telling us to watch out for this jerk. Aaron Holland as Queen's pathetic lover Fleetwood and Michael Booth as the "Alpha Pimp" Memphis have the vocal chops to inspire comparisons of this show to opera.

Jess Godwin's Mary makes the switch from naf to nymph with ease, and skillfully demonstrates the range required by a role encompassing the ballad "Go Home" as well as the snappy "Easy Money" and "People Magazine." Brandon Dahlquist as porn mogul Lou doesn't have the chance to display all of his considerable vocal skills here, but deserves special recognition for wearing one of the tackiest '70s middle-aged hair and beard styles imaginable. The entire company, under the musical direction of Jon Steinhagen, gives a superior performance of Coleman's memorable final score. They execute Brenda Didier's athletic choreography with precision and skill as well. As good as their song and dance skills are, though, their acting, while satisfying, falls just visibly short of fully capturing the mix of determination and desperation in their characters.

Still, the differences between these performers and those I remember from Broadway 11 years ago are not nearly as great as one might expect. Bohemian has established itself as one of the prime venues in Chicago for non-Equity musical theater performers. In a town where three or four top college programs turn out a lot of good ones each year and the opportunities for them to work are more limited than they should be, that's an important accomplishment.

The Life will be performed Thursdays and Fridays at 8:15 p.m., Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. and Sundays at 6:00 p.m. through July 15 at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont. For tickets, call the Theatre Building Box Office at 773-327-5252 or go to www.bohotheatre.com and click on The Life logo.


Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

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-- John Olson



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