Also, see Kevin's review of Heaven Help Us
Love, sex, greed and betrayal are a few of the highlights you’ll get to see in The Life, a musical about pimps and prostitutes in 1980s Time Square. However, the real focus is not the story itself, but who actually performs this story. The production going on at the Atlantis Playhouse is not only dramatic but dazzling as well, taking the word “ensemble” to new heights.
Let's get a backstory first. The Life is Cy Coleman's (Little Me, Sweet Charity) least produced musical. In 1997, it won the Drama Desk, Outer Critics, and Drama League Awards for Best Musical. It also won Tonys for best featured actor and actress. Not only did Coleman write the music, he collaborated on the libretto with Ira Gasman and David Newman, while Gasman wrote the lyrics. This all adds up to a powerful journey that should be more recognized, thanks to Gary Waldman (Producing Artistic Director) and his cast of 13 talented performers.
Now the story itself: Hustler Jojo narrates this chronicle about four people with different dreams who are about to be sewn together by fate and fatality. Queen and Fleetwood moved from Savannah to New York to live a better existence. Somehow, they ended up on the skids. Fleetwood, an ex-soldier who served in Vietnam, became a pimp while he used Queen as his “lady of the night.” Queen spends her time on the streets and sometimes in jail, while Fleetwood spends their money on his coke habit.
Sonja is the elder lady in the stable of prostitutes. She laments her plight in “The Oldest Profession,” as she talks about how she is tired and weary of her 24/7 occupation. Sonja plays mother hen to Queen, advising her to wake up to Fleetwood’s con games.
Straight off the bus from Duluth comes Mary, a wide-eyed innocent (or so it seems) in awe of the big city. When Fleetwood explains to Jojo that his financial situation is not all that he has hoped for, Jojo gets an idea and leads him to Mary. Fleetwood uses Mary as his new muse, explaining to Queen that Mary will make enough money to get them out of their current level of survival, so the couple can move on to happier days. Unfortunately, Queen isn’t too hip on the idea, and she tells Mary to “Go Home.”
Somehow, Mary melts Queen’s hard heart and shacks up with the couple. But things aren’t always as they seem. While Queen gets caught on the streets again, Mary reveals her true colors to both Jojo and Fleetwood. She gets hip to their con game and gets in on the take, becoming Fleetwood’s new lady. But nothing they do can compare to the weight that Memphis is bringing in. Memphis is the king pimp with a stable of “pros” that includes Sonja. He always wanted Queen as one of his own, and now that she knows of Fleetwood’s deception, Memphis can slide in and “save” her.
The collaboration of Cy Coleman, Ira Gasman and David Newman takes us back to a time when Times Square was ruled by money, power, and sex. Before Disney came in and cleaned up, it was a pimp’s paradise. The shadow of AIDS was looming in the air, but no one yet knew what they were dealing with. (The librettists were nice enough to put that hint out there in the story.) Four people are dealing with their own problems and are willing to wheel and deal to get what they want - not even betrayal can inhibit their stride. Fleetwood betrays Queen by creeping with Mary, who dumps Fleetwood to join up with an adult filmmaker. Jojo also jumps into the betrayal circus, leading up the most powerful climax of all.
Dean Swann is excellent as Jojo, a hustler who has seen it all and knows the ropes. Swann is not afraid to show the snake in Jojo; he looks like a friend, but can easily wield that knife, too. Swann moves like a cobra, but never shows when he is ready to strike - a good balance between charmer and reptile. As Memphis, Carl Barber-Steele’s stature is overwhelmingly good. He makes Memphis into a slick über-villain, creating the ultimate pimp with his neatly dressed suit and shining shoes. Singing “Don’t Take Much,” Barber-Steele resembles Isaac Hayes as he croons about changing a lady into a tramp. Barber-Steele also reveals Memphis' true colors to Queen - and they're not pretty!
Nadeen Holloway is terrific as Sonja, the elder hooker with the good heart. With her motherly instincts on point, her pipes show authority in selections like “The Oldest Profession” and “My Friend.” As Mary, Elizabeth King is believable as a Polly Pureheart, while her vixen shines in the number “People Magazine.” King has the right balance between victim and criminal, but the two leads resonate the most.
Ben Bagby shines as Fleetwood. Bagby handles Fleetwood as a man who not only wants a life for his lady, but wants the finer things to go with it. Unfortunately, Bagby also has to show Fleetwood’s darker side. As his addiction to power grows, Bagby has to show his man leaving behind the one who stood by his side the most. With that, Bagby never strays away from Fleetwood’s goal as another rogue who becomes remorseful - too little, too late.
Jeanne Gray gives a superb performance as Queen, a woman who just needs to be with a man who will love her right back. Gray has the most challenging role of all, that of a woman who is tortured, but empowered in the end, a role that Gray accomplishes with flying colors. Gray penetrates the surface of Queen giving her character depth and resonance. In selections like “He’s No Good” and “I’m Leaving You,” Gray makes Queen believable, letting the audience into her soul.
The design team has captured the essence of Times Square, with its graffiti-laced walls and dark, sinister colors. Matthew Decker’s set is pure New York City. Jamie Cooper assists Decker with lighting, creating a colorful, sinful design filled with reds and blues. Even the costumes are stunning, thanks to Kevin Black, who also did the choreography.
Cy Coleman’s score is contained inside a keyboard played by Phil Hinton. His musical direction creates the sounds of the '80s with syncopated drums and R&B grooves relevant to the times. Black’s choreography is dazzling like a cruise spectacular, making every player extend body parts they never knew that had.
Director Gary Waldman has chosen the right ensemble to bring this musical to life (pardon the pun). With all the right moves in place, this is a superior production. Let’s hope this story gets more renditions in the future; it's a gem that no one should miss.
The Life was to conclude on July 11th, but due to critical acclaim and popular demand, it has been extended indefinitely. The Life goes on at Atlantis Playhouse, 5893 S. Congress Avenue. For more information, please call the box office at (561) 304-3212.
ATLANTIS PLAYHOUSE - The Life
Featuring Jeanne Gray, Ben Bagby, Nadeen Holloway, Dean Swann
Ensemble: Miriam King, Jessie Alagna, Teandra Morris, Lorenzo Guitierrez,
Musical Direction: Phil Hinton
Set Design: Matthew Decker
Directed by Gary Waldman
-- Kevin Johnson