Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman
Book by David Newman, Ira Gasman, Cy Coleman (with revisions by Michael Blakemore)
Southwark Playhouse, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
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"You gotta keep the street squeaky clean for Mickey Mouse" says one of the pimps, in a prelude to this great Cy Coleman musical. He's referring to the Disneyfication of 42nd St and Times Square which began nearly 30 years ago now but which transformed a den of squalor run by gangsters to something less 'colourful' but a hell of a lot cleaner and more family friendly. The Life, which first appeared off Broadway 1990, and ran for a year on Broadway in 1997, explores the tail end of that era.
The first thing you notice is how great the score is. Coleman's strong suit (Sweet Charity, Barnum, City of Angels) was always how he fused a rhythmic jazz line with books laced with an acerbic wit. Here the score has gospel and soul infusions and gloriously old fashioned "11 o'clock numbers".The trope of 'the hooker with a heart of gold', as Charity was, won't really wash today and here the book writers dared to take it further and give us a hard hitting and sometimes violent story which doesn't shy away from the reality of the enslavement these women endured. The first half sweetens the pill as the assortment of well-drawn 'low-lifes' are introduced but the second pulls no punches in portraying the brutality of surviving in the underbelly of Times Square. This doesn't hinder it as a musical, on the contrary it give it more dramatic heft.
This production, the UK premiere, is notable for two things. It is superbly restaged, in this humble space, by the legendary Michael Blakemore (now 88), who created the original on Broadway and it is blessed with two standout vocal performances from the female leads: the veteran Sharon D Clarke and a newcomer T'Shan Williams. Their duets and T'Shan's torch song 'He's No Good' are vocally sublime. Clarke stops the show with (I'm getting too old for) 'The Oldest Profession', a song which poignantly sums up her character's lot in life. Williams, who has real star potential, is Queen, still hoping she might escape 'the life' only to be thwarted by the fearsome kingpin Memphis (Cornell S John). John manages to make him both grubby and fearsome. She's embroiled with troubled war veteran Fleetwood (an impressive David Albury) but he has a drug habit and is ultimately too weak to resist being sucked into the criminal underworld. The ensemble work is superb and Blakemore elicits vital and pulsating performances from them all.
Now a Mecca for musical fans, this tight theatre space tests the mettle of anyone involved and Justin Nardella's designs and Tom Jackson Greaves' choreography are ever inventive and fresh. Nardella's costumes, particularly for 'the hooker ball' are a wonderful riot of garishness.
It's a perfectly crafted, old fashioned show, albeit featuring coke snorting and seediness. Probably ahead of its time, it totally deserves this new lease of life and it should be in the West End.