In case you’ve forgotten the premise behind Reaganomics, the musical “The Life” offers a glimpse right before a large number at the top of Act 2: it was based on the “proposition that corporate taxes should be reduced as a means of stimulating short-term corporate investments and long-term benefits to society in general “.
And five, six, seven, eight!
Not only is this dialogue grim, mostly coming from a young pimp, but it’s not in “The Life” as we know it: the musical that opened last night as part of New York City Center’s Encores! the series has been drastically reconfigured from the one that premiered on Broadway in 1997.
Back then, composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Ira Gasman conceived “Mr. Greed “as a cynical showstopper – much in a Kander and Ebb vein – in which ’80s pimps and three-card-playing con artists explain that their best ally is greed that blinds the signs of their same madness.
Now Billy Porter – who adapted the book by Coleman, Gasman and David Newman and directed this production – puts Trump and Reagan masks on the ensemble members and makes them sing and dance their denunciation of an ideology. The issue is a stylistic and aesthetic piece with Porter’s vision of the show, which emphasizes systemic oppression at the expense of individual characterizations. Whether it’s a piece with “The Life”, well, it’s 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 advertising agent, but in the 1980s he was an entrepreneurial minnow in Times Square at its seedy form. (Anita Yavich’s costumes are colorful from the era, though they feel more anchored to a 1970s disco-funk vibe than they did in Reagan’s cooler decade.)
Older Jojo (Destan Owens) leads the characters, which include prostitutes Queen (Alexandra Gray) and Sonja (Ledisi), as well as their pimps and abusers, such as Vietnam veteran Fleetwood (Ken Robinson) and brutal pimp Memphis (Antway’s Hopper).
Jojo also regularly comments on the action, often casting a remorseful look at the behavior of his younger self, played by Mykal Kilgore. (Owens plays other characters as well, which leads to a rather confusing conversation with Queen that makes you wonder if Porter has confused the space-time continuum, on top of everything else.)
Unfortunately, the musical-memory format only takes us out of the plot and, above all, of the emotional impact. Whenever we get engrossed in the 1980s, old Jojo shows up with explained stories, petty editorials, and numb lessons. The original show allowed us to gradually discover the distinct personalities of the characters through actions, words and songs; now they are archetypal pawns in an editorial. One can agree with a message and still find its missing form.
Changes abound throughout the evening. Moving Sonja’s “The Oldest Profession” to the second act turns it into an 11 o’clock number for Ledisi, a Grammy-winning singer who runs with it and provides the most emotional moment of the show.
Others may feel useful. The original setting for the empowerment anthem “My Body,” which the company memorably performed at the 1997 Tony Awards (“The Life” had 12 nominations), was the response of working women to a group of bigoted bickering of the Bible.
Now the song follows a visit to a Midtown clinic “founded by a group of ex-prostitutes who found some doctors to work with who were actually living in that Hippocratic Oath situation,” as Old Jojo explains. There Sonja is treated for throat thrush and Queen, who is now transgender, receives injections. The sequel in “My Body” feels both literal and abrupt, and we lack the antagonists.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Porter said he thought the “comedy was doing storytelling a disservice” in the original production, which was conceived by white creators and dealt mostly with black characters. But while he has added many backstories, especially for Fleetwood, Sonja, and Queen, the version of him also features some new lines and some unfortunate funny deals.
Young Jojo is bad enough in that regard, but Memphis suffers more. As portrayed by a 1997 Tony-winning Chuck Cooper, his calmness amplified the threat of him: this was a scary Luciferian boy. Now Memphis is a Blaxploitation cartoon that can be absent-mindedly flamboyant, like when he hijacks one of Queen’s key scenes by striding shirtless. Hopper, who sings with a velvety bass-baritone, has such creepy abs that for a moment I wondered if the show was somehow using live CGI.
In addition to meta business, Memphis is also prone to breaking through the fourth wall, as when he complimented guest conductor James Sampliner on his arrangements.
Because those are new too. Coleman, equally at home in providing pop mumps in “Sweet Charity” and crafty 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”), was an interesting fusion of dull impulses rooted in a musical-theater idiom. But the stereotypical orchestrations and arrangements from R&B and Sampliner’s funk undermine the idiosyncrasies of the soundtrack.
For better or for worse, especially for the worse here, the Regietheater, the German practice of radically reinterpreting a play, musical or opera, has come to Encores. Be that Belonging to this series – which debuted in 1994 to offer short series of underestimated concert-style musicals and which traditionally concerned reconstruction rather than deconstruction – is an open question.
Afterthoughts may be welcome, even necessary in musical theater: Daniel Fish’s production of “Oklahoma!”, Now touring the country, is a particularly successful example.
Traditionally archival-minded Encores has broadened its mission to include that artists are “claiming work for our time through their own personal focus.” It’s clear that the series is entering a new phase, but for many of us longtime fans it’s also a bit sad to lose such a unique showcase.
Until March 20 at the New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes.