One cannot fully grasp the new revival of The Life at New York City Center directed by Billy Porter without first reading Unprotected, his memoir. The play’s latest edits and twists make little sense out of context. Where does an entire song based on hating President Trump come from and then a standing ovation for your second amendment rights after a hooker shoots her pimp? It comes from the mosaic of Billy Porter’s life journey.
This production is thought and conversation-provoking in all the best ways artistic endeavors strive to be. My harshest criticism is that it had such a limited run. It needs to be back on broadway – Porter’s version.
“Let us do as the that Good Book does, and start at the beginning,” Porter writes in his memoir.
In concert format, where some actors appear with scripts in hand and out of costume, is a long-established tradition at ENCORES! theater. The storyline is much the same as the original Broadway production by Roger Berlind, Martin Richards, Cy Coleman, and Sam Crothers, except that to appear at Encores!, a narration by Lou (Jeleni Alladin) is added. From a printed script, Lou reads an introduction and describes the fates of all involved. The ensemble takes turns reading from the script at points in the play. Porter also adds a scene showing the underbelly of the profession in a clinic where the hookers get medical help as HIV-aids is about to explode on the scene. He is attempting to instill empathy in the audience.
Porter revises the tragic comedy of My Life, a story of the world’s oldest profession based out of Times Square in NYC in the 70s and centered around the Port
Authority bus terminal. Porter humanizes the characters as people and coaxes the audience to see their humanness. Instead of laughing at or dismissing their plight and misfortune, we come to know the characters, what motivates them, and how they got the hand with which they were dealt. He creates a new identity for Queen (Alexandra Grey), which surprises everyone, cast and audience alike. The ladies of the night have names, families, and homes.
Antwayn Hopper as Memphis steals the show. Akin to Patrick Page in Hadestown, his haunting Mephistopheles bass voice is eerie and a showstopper. He got a standing ovation, befitting a kingpin of the underworld. Hopper transports you to the metropolitan opera house – it is that powerful. His pitch is excellent as he centers every note. He overpoweringly stands out from the rest of the cast and ensemble, as evidenced in the photo on top. How can a character so bad be so good? You fall into his spell. His costumes were hysterical, and he wore them like a peacock who thought he was king of the city jungle. Hopper would make a mesmerizing Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man to make it more believable, as the theater critic Jesse Green posits. I’d take Hopper in anything!
Young JoJo’s (Mykal Kilgore) character was sympathetic, caring, and kept us smiling. As expected, his singing was outstanding; we’ll see and hear a lot more from him in the future. Opening Night Online’s Myths and Hymns cycle from Covid-19 remote concert days highlights his duet with Broadway superstar Norm Lewis.
The “Mr. Greed” montage inserted between the acts was bizarre. Intended to parody Presidents Trump and Reagan, with the ensemble wearing paper masks depicting each president was lost on the audience. The Reagan hair cutouts were mistaken for Don Jr., President Trump’s eldest son. The entire montage was for a different play and storyline. Awkwardly inserted, it was one of those pieces that didn’t belong with the others.
As further developed in the play, greed pertains to law enforcement corruption, mob influences, City Hall, and Albany. Porter points out that when NYC was about to go bankrupt and sought a federal buyout, President Gerald Ford famously stated, “Drop Dead.” Next, the city put on its big boy city pants, cut back on police, teachers, and other
services, and balanced its budget. United States Associate Attorney General Rudy Giuliani, who had already crushed the mobs, comes on the scene as Mayor and cleans things up considerably. Crimes rates dropped, the city finally enforced a pooper scooper law, graffiti disappeared, people paid subway fares, cardboard box cities left the parks, subway tunnels, and families
moved back to the city. There were no more bicycles zooming on sidewalks, gangs running through subway cars, squeegee guys, peep shows, or hookers hitchhiking on Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen clad in just pantyhose and tube tops.
The band set prominently on the stage was “out of sight!” They played smooth, cool, rockin’, and disco sounds of the ’70s. Check it out—Fender Rhodes piano with an MXR phase 90, Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie, Yamaha DX7 piano, funk bass guitar, disco beats, and a horn section rivaling Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago, and disco bands of the day. It was a fabulous arrangement of instruments and players: trumpet/flugelhorn (Shawn Edmonds), French horn (P.J. Kelly), trombone (Clint Sharman), alto sax/flute (Dan Willis and Aaron Heick), tenor sax, violin( Belinda Whitney and Todd Low), viola (Todd Low), cello (Katherine Cherbas), drum set(Jamie Eblin), traps percussion (Wilson Torres), rhythm guitar (Keith Robinson), electric bass (Carl Carter), and synth keys (James Sampliner) that recreated the period sounds. I couldn’t help but think of gritty movies and their music like Carwash (1976), Shaft (1971), disco bands like The Trammps with Disco Inferno (1976), or the Bee Gees with How Deep is Your Love (1977). For a cinematic sense of the early ’70s with its blatant crime, note the themes and dialogue of the trailer from a period film like Death Wish (1974), focusing on raw revenge and the travails of a family living on the Upper West Side. Dig it!
Keyboard and guest music director and conductor James Sampliner gets a cameo as Memphis (Hopper) singles him out and draws him close, asking if the mess he finds himself in with Queen (Alexandra Grey) was “orchestrated.” The characters continuously integrate the band’s space into the action, which sometimes becomes a blur. There are many witty lines. Our narrator, Lou, warns us it’s a train wreck, but we paid to see it.
Humanizing the characters, director Porter adds a heartbreaking dialogue between Fleetwood (Ken Robinson) and Queen. “I feel like a pinball in a pinball machine – I always end up in the hole,” says Fleetwood after literally blowing all of Queen’s savings up his nose. The laughs are not at the characters’ expense but at the lines actually said. Sonja asks Memphis where he keeps his corkscrew, to which Memphis replies, “Up your ass if you don’t get out of here.” It makes a serious, tense work life bearable without removing its import.
Writing nearly a dozen reviews this week, this production was so much fun to cover and reminisce about. Every now and then, a show makes us pause, reflect, and incorporate pieces of it into our beings or reawaken parts buried over the decades.
It is an authentic NYC story, and those of us who witnessed those sordid days in the city can feel and relive many of the events. For those who did not experience these days, the stories may remain in the abstract, like a television show. It’s hard to believe this was NYC, but it was nearly 40 years ago, and a good deal has changed. Or has it?
The Life – concert adaptation by Billy Porter
With Jelani Alladin (Lou), Alexandra Grey (Queen), Antwayn Hopper (Memphis), Mykal Kilgore (Young JoJo), Ledisi, Erika Olson (Mary), Destan Owens (Old Jojo), and Ken Robinson (Fleetwood). Ensemble: Joe Beauregard, Angela Brydon, Tyler Eisenreich, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Semhar Ghebremichael, Albert Guerzon, Jeff Gorti, Heather Lang, Nathan Lucrezio, Tiffany Mann, LaQuet Sharnell Pringle, Devin L. Roberts, MiMi Scardulla, and Tanairi Vazquez.
The Encores Orchestra music director Rob Berman; associate music director Sinai Tabak; supervisor of music administration and score restoration Josh Clayton; Concertmaster Belinda Whitney; Violin/Viola Todd Low; Cello Katherine Cherbas; Bass Carl Cartier; Woodwinds Dan Willis and Aaron Heick; Trumpet Shawn Edmonds; Trombone Clint Sharman; French Horn R.J. Kelly; Drums Jamie Eblen; Percussion Wilson Torres; Keyboard James Sampliner; Organ/Keyboard Annatasia Victory; Guitar Keith Robinson.
Music by Cy Coleman; Lyrics by Ira Gasman; Book by David Newman, Ira Gasman, and Cy Coleman; Adapted by Billy Porter; Scenic Designer Clint Ramos; Costume Designer Anita Yavich; Lighting Designer Driscoll Otto; Co-Sound Designers Kai Harada & Megumi Katayama; Projection Designer Zachary Borovay; Wig & Hair Designer Tom Watson; Casting by The Telsey Office; Choreography by AC Ciulla; New Arrangements & Orchestrations James Sampliner - Featuring The Encores! Orchestra; Guest Music Director James Sampliner; Directed by Billy Porter.