Playbill Critics Circle: Your Reviews of The Life, Part 2

News   Playbill Critics Circle: Your Reviews of The Life, Part 2
Cy Coleman, composer of Sweet Charity, The Will Rogers Follies, City of Angels, Barnum and many other musicals has returned to Broadway with his latest project, The Life, which opened April 26.

Cy Coleman, composer of Sweet Charity, The Will Rogers Follies, City of Angels, Barnum and many other musicals has returned to Broadway with his latest project, The Life, which opened April 26.

If you have seen the show, please let everyone know what the show looks, sounds and feels like. Be as specific and descriptive as possible. How well does the show express its themes? How well does it capture its milieu -- Times Square in 1980? How are the performances, the dancing, the design elements? How are the songs, and how do they compare to other Coleman works?

Write your comments -- long or short -- and e-mail them to Managing Editor Robert Viagas at Comments will be posted as they come in.

Please make sure to include your town and state, and please note whether you'd like us to include your full e-mail address so you can receive responses. This is optional, of course.

Playbill On-Line thanks those who took the time to write. Owing the the number and length of responses, we have created this second file of reviews. Here are the latest results: From JRKING:
I'll be brief, since previous positive reviewers have gone into a lot of detail that I agree with. But I'll add a couple of thoughts after seeing the Wednesday night (4/23) performance, which appeared to be the critics' preview.
"The Life" isn't perfect. The first act outshines the second, the book is a little creaky and predictable. The whole thing should have been tightened up a bit, and the penultimate song, "My Friend," is a bit treacly. As one other participant noted, the "Mr Greed" number, while quite amusing, was sloppy.
That said, however, since "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," (or maybe "Big River") I can't recall seeing a new musical in the standard Broadway book tradition that works as well or provides as enjoyable an evening of theater as "The Life." (What are the highlights of the last 20 years: revivals of classics like "Gypsy" and "Guys and Dolls"; pseudo-operas like "Les Miserables" that can be wonderful but are an entirely different beast from the traditional Broadway musical, as was "Sunday in the Park" and some others.)
Some of these songs should soon be piano bar standards: "(I'm Getting Too Old for) The Oldest Profession," "(You Got to) Use What You Got (to Get What You Want)," "Don't Take Much." Other great numbers are rooted in the context: "Why Don't They Leave Us Alone," "My Body," "'Someday' Is for Suckers."
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Lillias White having the juiciest audience-pleasing role (her "Oldest Profession" stopped the show) and guaranteed to go home with a Tony. In fact, though I haven't seen "Titanic," it's hard to imagine that "The Life" won't take all the prizes this year. After seeing "Steel Pier" a couple of weeks earlier, I thought the traditional American musical comedy might have come to a complete dead end, but "The Life" proves that there's still room to travel. (4/24/97)


From Krebsman (4/24/97):
I went to the Wednesday matinee (4/23) on the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend who has paid full price to see the show twice. I think he ought to have his head examined. There is no question that Cy Coleman has talent, but, after iWelcome to the Clubi and this monstrosity, I sincerely doubt the man has an iota of taste. My friend had warned me that the subject matter was sleazy, but he thought it was brilliant.
The show was indeed set in the unsavory milieu of prostitutes and pimps. However, it was far from ibrillianti. I would characterize it as a long series of cliches. Anyone in the audience, after watching TV for a couple of weeks, could have written this script. There was not a single original idea in the entire show. At one point, when a pimp beat up a hooker, the audience laughed. The lyrics were so banal that I found myself predicting a coming rhyme with 90% accuracy. Coleman's music was highly derivative, especially a song called iHeis no good (but I'm no good without him)i, sung by a prostitute about her pimp. Yuck. I had blamed the misogyny of iWelcome to the Clubi on E.A. Hotchner, but maybe Coleman had a bigger hand in it than I thought. Coleman has done a few scores that I consider wonderful (Little Me, Wildcat, Charity), but this score is not even as good as Barnum or Welcome to the Club.
The opening number was sung by a particularly unappealing performer (whose name I have luckily forgotten). He looked a little like Liberace in the face, but sang more like Wayne Newton with an irritating tremolo. He appeared to be imitating Liza Minnelli without the glitz. Granted, he was not helped by the swishy choreography which made all the men seem effeminate, but I knew I was in for a bumpy ride. The only moment of real interest for me was a brief dance specialty performed by an eccentric dancer named Michael Gregory Gong. The highly touted debut performance of Bellamy Young as a new recruit to ithe lifei left me cold. Ms. Young is a beautiful girl who sings well and is extremely poised. Too poised. I never forgot for a minute that she was an actress. She will probably do well in the movies.
Most of the company had good voices, especially Lilias White and Chuck Cooper. I do wish somebody would tell Ms. White (and several other members of the cast as well) to just finish the darn song. It became extremely tedious after a while when several numbers in a row ended with the singers stopping just before the ultimate syllable and going into a scat credenza of screaming and wailing up and down the scale for a few minutes before FINALLY singing the last note. It was heartbreaking to hear Mr. Cooper's rich bass in the service of such a sleazy number as "My Way or the Highway." Now thatis real prostitution. (4/24/97)


From Harry W. (New York, NY):
I saw "The Life" at the Saturday matinee on 4/19 and I can easily say that it is the worst musical I have ever seen. I stayed for the whole show (which was a mistake) only out of great respect for the talent on stage and behind the scenes. I am now even more anxious to see the NEW 42nd Street. (4/23/97)


Just saw The Life at the Sunday evening performance. The audience seemed pretty sincere with their standing ovation. I thought the show had quite a few good songs, though I found some of the lyrics predicatable. Some standouts: Use What You've Got, You Can't Go to Heaven, Why Don't They Leave Us Alone, Easy Money, He's No good, Mr. Greed. The audience clapped long and hard for Lillias White's rendition of The Oldest Profession.
A few of the dramatic numbers, My Way or the Highway, We Had A Dream, and My Friend seemed to be influenced by Dreamgirls (maybe this had something to do with the orchestration). I found one of the weaker songs was the one that opened and closed the show--Check It Out! And two choral numbers for the prostitutes may be a bit too much--My Body and Someday is for Suckers--neither song is that wonderful. (Neither equals the dance hostesses's numbers Big Spender or Baby Dream Your Dream--the Cy Coleman numbers in Sweet Charity) All in all the score sounds great thanks to the jazzy orchestrations by don Sebesky and Harold Wheeler.
I liked the inventive touches in many of the dance numbers- for instance, the shoeshine boy's flourishes during one of the numbers-- though as someone else in this newsgroup has pointed out, some of the dances appear to be trying to copy Fosse. Still the dancing is well intergrated into the show and the numbers are never overlong as in say Play On. I'd like to hear opinions about the end of the first act--The Hooker's Ball. I liked the opening solo by Vernel Bagneris dancing in a red tux but I found the rest of the choreography a bit of mess--and hard to see with the dim lighting.
I liked the cast and was glad not all of them were conventionally good looking. the leads are strong, except perhaps for Pamela Isaacs who didn't have as much presence as Lillias White, who plays a secondary character. But I did think Isaacs' performance strengthened as the show progressed. Lillias White has a good chance to win the Tony for Supporting Actress in a musical. I've never seen Sam Harris in anything before but he seems well cast as Jojo. Chuck Cooper is quite scary as Memphis.
Robin Wagner's set is sparer and more suggestive than his recent efforts for Victor Victoria and Big.
I can't say I loved the story of this musical--sometimes I felt I was watching some grade-B movie plot from the '70s--but most of the numbers create a lot of excitement for the audience. I haven't heard the concept CD but I'm pretty sure the show will make a good album when it's recorded again. (4/21/97)


From JonTNYC (
I saw the second preview of "The Life." I went back two nights later and saw the fourth preview of "The Life." I'll be back again on Tuesday. It has been a long time since I've felt this way about a show, one with the kind of heat and energy of "A Chorus Line" and "Dreamgirls." I was shocked by some of the churlish, negative reviews I read on here and felt compelled to add my voice.
It is undeniably true that "The Life" walks a dangerous line. This is a show about pimps and hookers in Times Square in 1980. At times, the characters, in their platform shoes, flares, and afros, look like characters from a musicalized "Shaft." The story is melodramatic, even cheesy. By any rational standards, this musical shouldn't work. Yet it does. Brilliantly.
Most impressive is Cy Coleman's score. It is inventive, driven, and unerringly melodic, a wild mix of funk and Tin Pan Alley. And, perhaps unique to Coleman's output, the songs are openly, searingly emotional. The lyrics by Ira Gasman, while occasionally clunky (we can do better than "It's time that you wake up and smell the coffee in the pot"), are most often true to character, witty, and effective. This is a musical filled with show-stoppers, three of them ("You Can't Get To Heaven" "My Body" and "Why Don't They Leave Us Alone?") right in a row, perhaps the most thrilling twenty minutes on Broadway.
Any score would be lucky to have just one killer number. "The Life" has such gems to spare. I can't wait for the cast album.
The book by Coleman, Gasman, and David Newman, while not up to the score's excellence, is quite fine. People will pick at its raunchy lines and hokey plot developments, but I promise you will get caught up in it. When the heroine, Queen (Pamela Isaacs) is in trouble, the audience is pulling for her, desperately. These guys know how to write a show, a good old-fashioned book musical. Right after Sonja (Lilias White) brings down the house with her uproarious number, "The Oldest Profession," the show's villain, her pimp Memphis (Chuck Cooper), humiliates her and orders her back on the street. It's a powerful moment that plays skillfully with the audience's sympathy. That's smart book writing.
Also smart is Michael Blakemore's direction. He manages to find just the right tone and holds onto it with a fierce intelligence. I shudder to think what this material might have been in lesser hands. Blakemore and company aren't afraid to address the sleazy, dangerous, and tragic sides to the material. But they are also able to celebrate the humor, drive, and life-force of these characters. These are people struggling to get by, to get out of a difficult existence, to "make it"-- classic musical comedy themes and "The Life" knows how to exploit them.
Yes, some will complain about the moral questions involved with prostitution. But these same people flock to a musical about female murderers without batting an eye. Of course, there is a difference. "Chicago" treats its characters, brilliantly, in a stylized, distancing manner. "The Life" goes the other route. It is brazenly sentimental, which is a risky thing to be these days, alas.
Fortunately, the cast is perfection. Everyone will be talking, rightly so, of Lilias White's star-making performance as Sonja. But for me, it is Pamela Isaacs who is the heart and soul of "The Life." She is, quite simply, stunning. Beautiful in voice and appearance, Isaacs is absolutely incapable of a false moment. Chuck Cooper is a memorable villain and Sam Harris is extremely well-cast as Jojo, the amoral narrator. Harris has two slick numbers which he performs expertly, without the excesses that sometimes linger from his "Star Search" days.
But the entire cast is excellent and performs with the joy that comes from having great material. And the choice to cast various, untraditional body types as the hookers is right on the money. These girls aren't glamorized, Julia Roberts ladies of the evening. They are creatures of the street, getting by with attitude and defiance. The production values are all fine-- smart, clean, just what's needed. The choreography by Joey McKneely is always sharp, often inspired, mixing hot and sexy with the old soft-shoe. The whole enterprise is confident, gutsy, and thoroughly professional.
I have seen almost all the new musicals at the starting gate. I won't resort to comparisons because I find the whole horse-race nature of this busy season odious. I only hope this review will convince you to hurry to the Barrymore and support "The Life." I have sent several friends already and they have, without exception, had a fabulous time. Don't miss this risky, electric show which, if there is any justice, will be around for a long, healthy run. (4/21/97)


From RussHeller:
I have read all of the other reviews of The Life from fellow Playbill readers and was surprised to find the overall positive reactions. The show was kind of enjoyable, but it was instantly recognizable that the show DESPERATELY needed a tour to fix its incredible flaws.
The production had four things going for it: Lillias White, Sam Harris's voice, the voice of the guy that played Memphis (Chuck Cooper), and Lillias White. She was the things that kept me in my seat at all for this WAY too long production. The first act is 1 hour and 45 minutes and you feel like that show should be over then. The pain isn't over yet, though.
Lillias White was exceptional, the only complaint I have of her was the end of "The Oldest Profession" (which was a good song but a little too much like in the outline Coleman wrote, "Put show-stopper here"). She trills and trills for about 3 more minutes after her singing is done. She looks tired and bored during the trilling and doesn't really sing anything that intricate or spectacular. It looked like she resented the trilling.
Other than Sonja there was not a single sympathetic character in the play. Sam Harris looks like he'll be a good guy because he begins as the storyteller (and it isn't a bad touch to have the storyteller be a bad guy for a change) and he turns into slime. Even the main girl makes an obviously stupid choice in thinking Memphis would let her use him just to make Fleetwood jealous.
As per performances, Sam Harris could have been a better Jojo, made him more of a psychological case than a typical sleaze. His singing was excellent, though, as was Chuck Cooper's Memphis (his voice filled the whole theatre). The only actor I actively did not appreciate was Fleetwood, Kevin Ramsay. Maybe a better actor could have given us a reason why Queen likes him so much. Fleet was a sleaze like all of the other characters.
I did forget one redeeming performance, Lacey the bartender. I don't remember the actor but he was very good and I liked the device they used with him, he always spoke in rhyme.
At the beginning of the play I leaned over to a friend and said, "I smell a West Side Story ending," and I was not disappointed. I almost started humming "There's a place for us." Cy Coleman's score is trite and there is not a single song that would function outside of the show. Even the best song in the show, "Someday is for suckers," the only one where you heard Gasman spent more than 10 minutes on lyrics (good rhymes with should, rhymes with could and wood) was packed full of references to hooking which can not be taken out to make it singer friendly.
I am surprised that so many people recorded the concept album, I can't imagine Liza Minnelli singing these songs, she's annoying but not trashy. One song being championed by several, "My Friend", is debatably the worst in the score. The big lines that keep being belted are, "I will always know that you've been my friend." Imagine that belted over a 30 second period or more.
The plot was trite, the hooker's ball is the worst device I've seen used in a musical (and I did start humming "Dance at the Gym"). On a plus, the dancing was VERY entertaining, especially "Mr. Greed", while containing very hackneyed and trite lyrics and overused rhythm.
That song really came out of left field. It shows Jojo leaving the hookers ball the next morning. He sings the song and walks off, then suddenly we are back at the ball the night before and Jojo comes in like he's been there the whole time. I didn't get it. The sets were very uncomplicated.
The best moments were when the characters and production were lampooning themselves. People laughed appreciatively and clapped at a clever elevator device (the whole set went up instead of the elevator going down). People also cheered when the bad guys were killed. They also cheered when Queen walked out on Fleetwood, etc. The audience as a whole was much more caught up in it than I was. The performers afterwards seemed to like the show a lot. The only thing that kept me clapping was that it wasn't their fault they were speaking these unbelievable words and singing these low-grade songs.
How about Memphis' song, "My Way or the Highway". That song was obviously written only so that it would be played and sung at occasions like "My Way" by Sinatra is. It was like "This is the Moment" but worse. Unfortunately I was told by a fellow theatregoer that lame as it was, "The Life" was much better than "Steel Pier" or "Jekyll and Hyde". "Titanic" goes without saying. What else was mentionable? The song "People Magazine" was mediocre (a good review) even though the situation it was sung in was hackneyed.
The costumes rocked, with the exception of one girl who was sporting an afro. There was also one pimp that was still trapped in the early 70's (as well as a Damon Wayans impression). Every show needs a big chubby hooker for when it starts to take itself too seriously, as this show certainly did. I believe the closest thing to this would be a mix of a musical of "Balm in Gilead" and the TV show "Shaft".
Why didn't he just try to musicalize "Balm in Gilead"? It dealt with many of the same subject and it would have at least have been for a noble cause. Instead what we have is a recycled Cy Coleman flop that won't be produced ANYWHERE else unless a miracle occurs.
I wouldn't see this show again if paid, aside from being too long and too bad, it was too formula. Very formula. No one else was notable, Bellamy Whatever (Mary) was not horrible but her character was schizophrenic nice one second and bad the next, while alone on stage. The show also lent itself to such things as a choreographed shoe shine during the course of a whole song ("Why don't they leave us alone?") which totally took the focus off the singers (considering the lyrics that wasn't such a bad thing).
Anyway, see it at the peril of your wallet and aesthetic interest. By paying to see shows like this and Titanic we are encouraging composers to put hastily written crap onto a stage and to suck $70 out of thousands of people's wallets before the people admit it is such and close it. This show has many people who say it is good, and that it has something to say. Maybe they just don't want to admit they were suckered. It has nothing to say and it does a bad job at saying it. (4/21/97)


From Jonathan Thompson (, Bronxville, NY:
The Life - Best Musical 1997
Wow. I was not expecting to be blown away by this show. But blown away I was.
It's not perfect - but it's good. I was offended by some things in the first act: the casual, joking reference to a prostitute's AIDS death, and the bit when Sonja (Lilias White - who WILL be Best Featured Actress this year!) calculates that she has "been laid by 15,000 guys" in 10 years. I find that disgusting, not material for comedy. But these are only minor problems in what is mostly a wonderful show.
It sort of falls apart in the second act. Much of the script there is very forced and predictable and just plain cheezy - I actually laughed at the "serious" song "My Way or the Highway." And they need to figure out what the character of Jojo is supposed to do for the show. And who the hell was that token transvestite in the second act - can we say "Rent" rip off? And 1 hour and 40 minutes was WAY too long for the first act.
But I must repeat that the problems in now way outweighed the high quality of the rest of the show. Every single person on stage was perfect. Especially Pamela Isaacs and Lilias White, who both deserve Tony's. Visually, the show was a complete joy. Everything from the scenery - which filled the stage in a way that the scenery for "Play On!" very unsuccessfully tried to do, to the costumes, to the staging to the choreography. I don't agree that Joey McKneely's choreography was a Fosse copy. I found it refreshingly original and flawless. The show could use a couple more dance numbers!
I was amazed how smoothly and professionally the show looked - especially for a show that is still in previews. I saw "Play On!" 2 weeks after it opened, and it still looked sloppy and rough. "The Life" seems to be the only new show that was actually ready to open this season - and it was the last to announce its opening! I must also thank the producers (or theater or whoever is responsible) for providing $20 student rush tickets. The extreme cost of other shows ("Steel Pier" didn't offer standing room during previews - "Titanic" and "Play On!" don't offer it at all!) led me to "The Life," and I'm VERY glad they did.
I must say, however, that this is DEFINITELY NOT A FAMILY SHOW. It's VERY adult - often gratuitously so, unfortunately. So beware...but go! (4/19/97)


From Lou Kersten, Bklyn, NY:
I saw The Life last night (4/18)...the tag line for the poster is "You're not in Kansas anymore" Well, you're hardly in the proferssional theater either.
The show's score steals from everywhere--"Cabaret", "Dreamgirls" "I Love My Wife"...rather than seeming to have been worked on for 20 years, it looks as though it were thrown together in 20 minutes...the set has got to be the ugliest thing ever put behind a curtain -huge blocks of drab colored bricks with 5 neon signs flying in & out (there is 1 clever bit invoilving an elevator)
More to the point...why is Cy Coleman writing a celebratory musical about hookers & pimps??? What on earth is a hooker's ball???? There is no cliche left alone...hookers w/ hearts of gold...the prostitute who used to sing in church, the kind hearted retired hoofer bartender, the sleazy porn producer (shirt open to the navel w/ gold chains dangling around his neck...why not just hang a sign on him which reads "sleazy porn producer")
The show apparently takes place around 1979/80, yet the costumes scream 1975 (Shaft era)...platform sandals were dead by 1979.
The choreography is lame & derivative...I hope Gwen Verdon (or whoever manages Fosse's estate) sues for theft...although I bet Fosse would not want anyone to associate the soggy mess on stage @ the Barrymore w/ his name.
The cast is uniformly excellent, especially Lillias White, who from her first moment on stage is compelling...but everyone else is working just as hard to spin some gold from the crap they've been handed to perform
It will be a short life... (4/19/97)

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