Review of The Life at the Southwark Playhouse starring Sharon D Clarke
It's undeniable that Cy Coleman is Broadway's most versatile composer. With a career that spans four decades few can claim an unfamiliarity with his scores to shows such as Sweet Charity, City of Angels, On the Twentieth Century and Little Me. The Life, his final Broadway contribution is perhaps his trickiest in terms of overall tone and construction but like a rare jewel that eventually glistens with a good polish this joyful production confirms it as an impressive contribution to the canon.
Twenty years after the modest hit of the original Broadway production original director Michael Blakemore has brought the show to life with great care and unbridled passion for the material. This handsome production offers a set of exceptional performances and some energetic choreography that works hard to highlight the piece's merits - even though at times these are slightly over-pushed.
Set in Times Square in the 1970s before its “Disneyfication” the show stems from an idea of lyricist Ira Gasman to reflect the world of porn, prostitution, drugs and gambling on the Broadway stage. We're introduced to “The Oldest Profession” by a number of pimps and prostitutes who battle for turf and welcome each new arrival to the streets as an opportunity. Inherently dark in its themes its various plot threads span multiple characters but the two that catch the eye are Queen who has just returned from prison and her friend Sonja, a tired and hardened hooker. Far from the quaintness of the Fandango Ballroom the show explores numerous non Disney-friendly themes, but in the frame of musical comedy on which it frequently falls back on never quite feels dirty or dangerous enough.
Blakemore treats the piece with the reverence of a classical director handling Shakespeare. At over three hours there is plenty of room for some judicious cuts and narrative refining - the piece ultimately is in a constant battle with itself over whose story it's trying to tell.
As diverse as Cy is throughout his whole work this specific score is dramatically varied which leads to some unevenness in tone and pacing. The melodies are bracing and constantly toe-tapping but seem to lack an overall structure. An “I Want” song arrives at almost ten thirty. Delightful, yes but misplaced. Some have the feel of trunk songs and left over ideas from Sweet Charity, a show which shares many themes and of course the central idea. Whereas Charity works as it tactfully makes you invest in a sole journey and peppers its message with supporting examples, The Life wrestles between supporting and leading characters, so much so that at its conclusion you're left not quite sure who to support, who to champion or quite frankly who is worth caring about.
Musically though it's a delight. From the groove of the bass line that places it in an immediate time frame to the appropriate 70s funk, Cy teases your ear and shows off his idiosyncratic melodic ease. The problem however is the moments from which these songs arrive. Few songs feel necessary or dramatically deserved, none tell lyrical journeys or moments that help bind the piece into a coherent climb. The end result forms a sort of concept musical forced into a traditional book form and these shackles ultimately restrict where the piece has the opportunity to go.
That said, it's a delight to watch. Tom Jackson-Greaves' choreography is sharp, expressive and fiercely delivered. This is a tightly drilled ensemble who feel secure in the space and perform with a punctuated musicality that radiates joy and is often exhausting to watch. Tamara Saringer's musical direction is consistently tight, leading an excellent band with some of the best sound design I've experienced in this notoriously tricky venue.
Vocally it's spot on with Sharon D. Clarke leading the pack in terms of dramatic grit and ferocious honesty. She handles the dots effortlessly and brings a new life to the material that impresses but never feels overly showy. She's matched by T'Shan Williams as Queenie who delivers the most conflicted role with care and lights up the stage with her beautiful presence and powerful voice. As the men appropriately swoon and grandstand the acting is slightly more uneven but it's the women that own this piece with excellent eye-pulling support from Jalisa Andrews, Aisha Jawando, Charlotte Revey and Lucinda Shaw.
Whilst it's not quite Cy's 'masterpiece', as described by Blakemore in a curtain speech, it's much more than a curiosity and as a musical it provides constant delights. At times it feels emotionally hollow but it remains thoroughly entertaining and thanks to this slick and well-oiled production the piece's merits are given the best possible opportunity to shine. "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This", sure, but there's also plenty to commend and thanks to this spot-on cast much to applaud.