‘The Life’ Review: Turning More Than a Few New Tricks

In case you have forgotten the premise behind Reaganomics, the musical “The Life” offers a primer right before a big number at the top of Act 2: It was based on “the proposition that taxes on businesses should be reduced as a means to stimulate business investment in the short term and benefit society at large in the long term.”

And five, six, seven, eight!

Not only is this dialogue leaden — especially coming from a young pimp — but it is not in “The Life” as we know it: The musical that opened last night as part of New York City Center’s Encores! series has been drastically reconfigured from the one that premiered on Broadway in 1997.

Back then, the composer Cy Coleman and the lyricist Ira Gasman conceived “Mr. Greed” as a cynical showstopper — very much in a Kander and Ebb vein — in which ’80s-era pimps and scam artists playing three-card monte explaining that their best ally is the cupidity that blinds marks to their own foolishness.

Now Billy Porter — who adapted Coleman, Gasman and David Newman’s book, and directed this production — puts Trump and Reagan masks on the ensemble members and has them sing and dance their denunciation of an ideology. The number is of a stylistic and aesthetic piece with Porter’s take on the show, which emphasizes systemic oppression to the detriment of characterizations. Whether it’s of a piece with “The Life,” well, that is something else.

There are many changes to the book, but the most structurally consequential is the decision to frame the story as a flashback narrated, decades after the events, by the shady operator Jojo. He is now, he informs us, a successful Los Angeles publicity agent, but in the ’80s he was an entrepreneurial minnow in Times Square at its seediest. (Anita Yavich’s costumes are colorfully period, even if they feel more anchored in a 1970s disco-funk vibe than in the colder Reaganite decade.)

Old Jojo (Destan Owens) acts as our guide to the characters, who include the prostitutes Queen (Alexandra Gray) and Sonja (Ledisi), as well as their protectors and abusers, like the Vietnam veteran Fleetwood (Ken Robinson) and the brutal pimp Memphis (Antwayn Hopper).

Jojo also regularly comments on the action, often casting a remorseful eye on the behavior of his younger self, portrayed by Mykal Kilgore. (Owens plays other characters, too, which leads to a rather confusing conversation with Queen that makes you wonder if Porter has scrambled the space-time continuum, on top of everything else.)

Unfortunately the memory-musical format only takes us out of the plot and, most crucially, the emotional impact. Every time we get absorbed in the 1980s goings-on, the older Jojo pops up with explainy back stories, ham-handed editorializing and numbing lectures. The original show let us progressively discover the characters’ distinct personalities through actions, words and songs; now they are archetypal pawns in an op-ed. One can agree with a message and still find its form lacking.

Changes abound throughout the evening. Moving Sonja’s “The Oldest Profession” to the second act transforms it into an 11 o’clock number for Ledisi, a Grammy-winning singer who runs with it and provides the show’s most thrilling moment.

Others can feel dutiful. The original setup for the potential anthem “My Body,” which the company memorably performed at the 1997 Tony Awards (“The Life” had 12 nominations), was the working women’s answer to a group of sanctimonious Bible-thumpers.

Now the song follows a visit to a Midtown clinic “founded by a group of ex-hookers who found some medical folks to partner with who actually lived by that Hippocratic oath situation,” as Old Jojo explains. There Sonja gets treated for throat thrush and Queen, who is now transgender, receives injections. The segue into “My Body” feels both literal and abrupt, and we miss the antagonists.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Porter said he thought that “the comedy was doing the storytelling a disservice” in the original production, which was hatched by white creators and dealt largely with Black characters. But while he has added a lot of back stories, especially for Fleetwood, Sonja and Queen, his version also features quite a few new quips as well as some unfortunate broad funny business.

Young Jojo is bad enough in that respect, but Memphis suffers the most. As portrayed by a Tony-winning Chuck Cooper in 1997, his calm amplified his menace: This was a Luciferian scary guy. Now Memphis is a Blaxploitation cartoon who can be distractingly flamboyant, as when he hijacks one of Queen’s key scenes by preening barechested. Hopper, who sings in a velvety bass-baritone, has such uncanny abs that for a moment I wondered whether the show was somehow using live CGI.

Adding to the meta business, Memphis is also prone to winky fourth-wall-breaking asides, as when he complimented the guest conductor James Sampliner on his arrangements.

Because those are new, too. Coleman, equally at ease delivering pop earworms in “Sweet Charity” and canny operetta pastiches in “On the Twentieth Century,” was one of Broadway’s most glorious melody writers, and “The Life,” orchestrated by Don Sebesky and Harold Wheeler (of “ The Wiz” and “Dreamgirls” fame), was an interesting melding of brassy impulses rooted in a musical-theater idiom. But Sampleliner’s formulaic R&B- funk-inflected orchestrations and arranged the score’s idiosyncrasies.

For better or for worse — mostly for worse here — Regietheater, the German practice of radically reinterpreting a play, musical or opera, has come to Encores. whether that The approach belongs in this series — which debuted in 1994 to offer brief runs of underappreciated musicals in concert style and has traditionally been about reconstruction rather than deconstruction — is an open question.

Rethinks can be welcome, even necessary in musical theater — Daniel Fish’s production of “Oklahoma!,” now touring the country, is one especially successful example.

The traditionally archival-minded Encores has broadened its mission statement to include that the artists are “reclaiming work for our time through their own personal lens.” It’s clear that the series is moving into a new phase, but for many of us longtime fans, it’s also a little sad to lose such a unique showcase.

The Life
Through March 20 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

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