The pimps and hookers of pre-Disneyfied Times Square are alive and well and still doing business in the much anticipated Los Angeles premiere of Cy Coleman’s last Broadway musical, 1997’s The Life, now in a limited run on the couldn’t-be-more-fitting Hollywood Boulevard, and directed with power and pizzazz by Joe Greene. 

For those who’ve been wondering if Jaxx Theatrical’s much-touted small-stage adaptation would live up to the hype, the answer is a resounding yes.  Besides featuring one of Coleman’s finest and most distinctive scores, Ira Gasman’s appropriately uncensored lyrics, and a gritty book by David Newman, Gasman, and Coleman, Hollywood Blvd.’s The Life stars an array of terrifically talented triple-threats backed by Alexander Georgakis’s joints-a-jumpin’ six-piece band and dancing to Paul Romero, Jr.’s sensational Fosse-inspired choreography.

Dionne Gipson stars as Queen, the beautiful hooker with a heart of gold, fresh from yet another night in jail, who dreams of escaping “the life” with “he ain’t my pimp, he’s my man” Fleetwood (Robert Gee)—who is in fact very much Queen’s pimp.  Unfortunately, Fleet has just spent half the money Queen’s been saving up for their escape in order to pay off his drug debt—leaving Queen without an escape plan, that is until blue-eyed blonde Mary (Stephanie Girard) arrives semi-fresh from Minnesota with stars in her eyes.  Though Queen tries to convince Mary to return home, Fleet sees in this girl next door with a body to die for the perfect moneymaker.  Meanwhile, rougher, tougher rival pimp Memphis (David St. Louis) wants to add Queen to his stable of money-makers and Hollywood porn producer Lou (Chris Cobb Olsen) has his eye on luring Mary to the West Coast. Those in search of a fairy-tale happy ending had best look elsewhere.

Introducing us to The Life in the production’s show-stopping opening number is opportunistic hustler Jojo (Ethan Le Phong), a snazzily-dressed, angel-faced, double-crossing lowlife, while Queen’s best friend and fellow hooker Sonja (Cheryl Murphy-Johnson) adds some tell-it-like-it-is sass to the dangerous mix.

There’s not a dud in Coleman’s two-dozen-song score which includes:
•“Oldest Profession,” Sonja’s lament about “getting too old for the oldest profession”
•“You Can’t Get To Heaven,” a soulful gospel hymn sung by Queen, Sonja, and a couple of proselytizing “Jesus people”
•“Easy Money,” Mary’s joyous salute to selling one’s body in quest of cash
•“My Way Or The Highway,” in which Memphis orders Queen in no uncertain terms to shape up or get beat up
•“My Friend,” The Life’s answer to Wicked’s “For Good,” with Queen and Sonja vowing eternal best-friendship.

Sultry Gipson belts out a pair of The Life’s biggest and best ballads—“He’s No Good” and “We Had A Dream”—to powerful effect, and “People Magazine” provides a fine showcase for Olsen’s talents as he outlines Lou’s plan for Mary’s Hollywood success. 

Romero’s stellar choreography and Greene’s musical direction provide razzle-dazzle in production number after production number including: 
•“Check It Out,” the sizzling show opener which sets the evening’s electric tone
•“My Body,” the street girls’ anthem to self-determination
•“Why Don’t They Leave Us Alone,” with both pimps and prostitutes railing against cops who can’t stop meddling in their lives
•“Hooker’s Ball,” an anthem about the yearly streetwalkers’ dress-up party, performed by an engaging Red Savage as bar owner Lacy
•“Mr. Greed,” with Jojo and the hustlers revealing their raison d’être, i.e. good old American dollars
•“Someday Is For Suckers,” in which Sonja and the other ladies of the evening sing longingly about their dreams for the future.

Gee does excellent work as Fleetwood, a man torn between his love for Queen and his desire for money, and St. Louis makes a strong impression as a truly scary Memphis, with “My Way Or The Highway” showcasing his powerful bass pipes.  However, the award for the evening’s most dazzling male performance goes to Le Phong, the breakout star of last season’s Pippin. In better voice than ever and dancing like the Broadway pro he is, the (up till this show) boy next door reveals a sexy, darker side as Jojo, a role which should open many doors for Le Phong, who’d make a great Leading Player in Pippin or Engineer in Miss Saigon.

Among the women, in addition to the gorgeous Gipson, Girard (a young Susan Anton) reveals killer pipes and curves as sexy Minnesotan Mary, and Robin Ray Eller, Mara Hall, Taryn Reneau, and Cindy Sciacca couldn’t be better or more believable as the Times Square working girls.  Best of all is Murphy-Johnson, who does richly layered work as Sonja and belts out her numbers with the best of the R&B superstars.

As for the pimps (Joshua Campbell, Rusty Hamrick, DT Matias, and Tony Melson), they are uniformly hot in talent, dance, and physique, and the uniquely talented Willam Belli crosses genders in a memorable turn as tranny hooker April, who is sure to fool some unsuspecting audience members.

Recent USC grad Georgakis proves himself a musician/conductor to be reckoned with, doing impeccable work on piano and backed by a couldn’t-be-better (and equally youthful) onstage band—Takashi Iio on bass, Ryan Stern on trumpet, Nicholas Sobko on reeds, Kristina Raymond on drums, and Brett Fisher on trombone and keyboards.

Brett Snodgrass’s scenic design is simple, but a good fit for a 99-seat space. Dan Selon deserves highest marks for his just-right-for-Times Square costumes. John Ryman’s lighting design ups the emotional impact, while Eric Snodgrass’s sound design provides for a successful blend of voices and accompaniment.  Erin Spencer does triple duty assisting director Greene, choreographer Romero, and covering the role of Mary.

The Life has a virtually unprecedented (for an intimate theater) Tuesday through Sunday performance schedule, but the run is short. Following the just concluded week of previews and opening performances, only two weeks remain before the show closes on Sunday December 21st. Don’t miss this see-it-now-or-regret-it chance to experience the musical which proved that Cy Coleman kept getting better with age.  It’s a shame he’s not still with us to witness the loving care and professionalism which Jaxx Theatricals has put into this splendid revival.

Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 6, 2008

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