While walking around the long-gone Tower Records in 1998 I picked up a cast recording for THE LIFE, a new Broadway score written by musicals veteran Cy Coleman. The only cast member I had heard of was Sam Harris, a big-voice belter who had appeared in a few one-off benefits in London - ah for the days of the Sunday evening benefit events... they appear to have gone the way of Tower Records too.
What made me buy it was Coleman's previous show was CITY OF ANGELS which had been a big favourite of mine. The score presented an intriguing dichotomy as although the show was sent in the sleazy world of 1980s Times Square, Coleman's score sounded from an earlier era - more late 1950s/1960s showbiz with big ballads which would not have been out of place on a Streisand album. So I sat and listened and waited for a London production. And waited... and waited... and waited... for 20 years!
THE LIFE certainly fits the recent niche that Southwark Playhouse has discovered and does so well - the risky musical or revival that might scare off West End producers: TITANIC, GRAND HOTEL, THE TOXIC AVENGER, XANADU, GREY GARDENS, SIDESHOW etc. What is remarkable is that Michael Blakemore, the show's original director, has directed this version too - not bad for an 88 year-old! His love of the material is obvious as it is directed with a sure hand, it's pace moving like a NY hooker trying to escape arrest!
Blakemore has also revised the book - originally by Ira Gasman, Coleman and David Newman - but there is still a disconnect between Cy Coleman's "Musical Theatre" score and the story that it is illuminating - the dangerous life of those in the sex trade around Times Square in the early 1980s. There is the occasional nod to the the post-disco sound which would have been the show's characters 'obvious' music of choice but Coleman's 1950s/1960s score still surprises with cheeky, bouncy songs such as the opening number of "Use What You Got"; it's jazz-hands rhythm suggesting a Sammy Davis Jnr number rather than the credo of a two-faced hustler who will sell anyone down the river. Ira Gasman's lyrics also are not quite a match for Coleman's music in the ballads where cliché always wins in the end...
1980s 42nd Street (before the tsunami of AIDS hit): Queen is released from jail after being arrested for soliciting which she does to make enough to get her and her Vietnam veteran lover Fleetwood away from New York forever. However Fleetwood has a cocaine habit and she finds he has spent half their savings on it while she was inside. She meets up again with her friend Sonja, an older streetwalker who is finding it harder to get through a night on the game. Sonja is kept turning tricks by her powerful pimp Memphis who views Queen as a worthy addition to his girls.
Double-dealing Jojo tells Fleetwood he needs to have a fresher face working for him and they single out Mary, a young girl just arriving in NY from Minnesota. Jojo finds her a job as a go-go bar waitress which she soon turns into being a dancer. Mary proves to be a natural at parting men from their money and Fleetwood moves her into the apartment much to Queen's anger. She and Sonja get arrested again and on her release Queen discovers that Fleetwood had sex with Mary; Memphis is standing by with a kindly word and at the annual Hooker's Ball, she snubs Fleetwood for the triumphant Memphis. But Queen soon discovers that Memphis' protection means her hitting
the streets for him and it is left to the watchful and resourceful Sonja
to help Queen in her dreams of escape...
The hidden band made their presence more than felt by BLARING the score out to the detriment of the lyrics being heard when the cast with weaker voices were singing - luckily there were some seriously good singers in the cast.
Cornell S. John was very good as Memphis, his rich deep voice establishing his authority for all to feel and I also liked Joanna Woodward as Mary, the new girl in town who is not as dumb as she looks. She certainly outshone David Albury who played Fleetwood with all the conviction of an X-Factor contestant and John Addison's Jojo suggested Trafalgar Square more than Times Square.
THE LIFE is blessed however with two stand-out performances: newcomer T'Shan Williams as the elegant Queen and the spectacular Sharon D. Clarke as the man-weary Sonja. T'Shan Williams sang Queen's big ballads "He's No Good" and "I'm Leaving You" with such style and power that it is hard to believe she only left drama school in 2015 - she would make an excellent Deena Jones if and when DREAMGIRLS re-cast at the Savoy.
It is always a pleasure to see Sharon D. Clarke - even more so when it's in an intimate space like the Southwark Playhouse - and she was a fabulous Sonja, yes the concept of a tart with a heart of gold has been done to death but Clarke filled her character with such raging life that all critical bets were off. Her big number "The Oldest Profession" is placed quite early on in the show but our Sharon don't care where she stops the show honey! She whacked that song out of the Playhouse and got a huge round for it and deservedly so. Queen is too busy being virtuous to truly win the audience's affections but Sonja is on hand to keep you engaged in the show - as well as having the best frock at the Hooker's Ball, a blue-sequined caftan that Gloria Gaynor would give her eye-teeth for.
Their voices also melded very well in the duets "You Can't Get To Heaven" and the climactic "My Friend" and it was great to see them take their bow together and, as Owen said after, T'Shan couldn't have a better co-star than Sharon.
Despite all the niggles I have about the show, I would recommend a walk on the wild side down to Southwark Playhouse as it is still a great tribute to Cy Coleman's talent in writing a show-tune and in Williams, Clarke and John it has three performances to savour - but hurry, it's only on until April 29th.