Little known on these shores, The Life
presents a very different 42nd
Street to the one we're expecting to encounter when the revival of the feel-good 1980s musical extravaganza opens at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane next week.
Co-writer Ira Gasman got the idea for show when he witnessed an arrest whilst wandering amidst the hookers, pimps, drug addicts and dealers of a pre-Disneyfied Times Square and he teamed up with fellow Broadway scribe David Newman, composer Cy Coleman (no stranger to New York's underbelly thanks to Sweet Charity
and its dance-hall-hostess-with-a-heart heroine) and director Michael Blakemore to bring a show about the area's many colourful characters to the stage.
They concocted a plot about a prostitute named Queenie whose attempts to flee a world she hates are complicated by the fact her fella is a drug addict and the pimp she ends up in service to is a violent thug. Debuting off-Broadway in 1990, The Life
transferred to the Great White Way but only lasted a couple of months – maybe because Broadway audiences weren't keen to acknowledge the truths it was telling about the seedy goings-on just beyond the theatre lobby.
Maybe. Or maybe because it's a real ragbag of a show that mixes too many musical genres (70s funk two decades too late, power ballads, show tune pastiches), has too many protagonists circling the leads and lacks dramatic focus. The Southwark Playhouse production, again under the direction of Michael Blakemore, marks the show's UK premiere and, faithful to the source, it's more hit than miss. The dancing's not as tight as it should be, some of the vocals are pitchy, some of the performances underpowered.
The bits that hit? Those include Sharon D. Clarke's Sonja, a hooker who is over the hill and halfway down the other side, tired of being a slave to (in the show's one standout number) 'The Oldest Profession'. And David Albury, as drug-addled wannabe hotshot Fleetwood, isn't just lovely looking, he finds depth in a stock character that could easily be one-dimensional.
The best numbers are when the girls are all together, as cynical bemoaning the life they're forced to live as Charity's dance hall pals, as sassy as the jailbirds in Chicago, as diverse as NYC used to be. They're the heart of a show that, if someone took the scissors to it and pared it down from its nigh on three-hour running time, could be great but, as it stands in its original form, is a more than interesting but overlong curiosity.
The Life is at the Southwark Playhouse, London, until April 29th. For more information and tickets visit southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.
Words by Simon Button
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