It would be neat to summarise Michael Blakemore’s revival of the musical that he directed on Broadway in 1997 with something like “life’s too short”, but, sadly, the biggest problem with this show is that, at around 3 hours, life’s too long by at least half an hour. Tony award nominated, the show has a score by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman and a book by them and David Newman, now revised by Blakemore.
“The life” means prostitution, the setting is the sleazy area around Times Square, New York in the early 1980s, before several mayors came along and sanitised it, paving the way for the arrival of Disney shows. This is Damon Runyon territory, the underbelly of a great working city, except that none of the characters is loveable and the celebratory joy of Guys and Dolls is entirely absent. There are echoes too of Coleman’s earlier musical about hookers, Sweet Charity, but romantic comedy is ditched in favour of gritty realism. Creating a musical that is as consistently downbeat as this presents many challenges and there is much to commend in Coleman’s bluesy score, but it lacks variety and it desperately needs at least one stand-out number like Big Spender to elevate the show to a higher level. The hookers’ ball that opens the second act promises to be the big set piece to match Rhythm of Life, but it fizzles out limply.
There are two key storylines – Queen (T’shan Williams) and her pimp/boyfriend, drug-abusing ex-serviceman Fleetwood (David Albury) plan an escape back to a life of normality; seemingly innocent Mary (Joanna Woodward) arrives from out of town to make a new life and faces competing bids for her services. At their best, Gasman’s lyrics have sufficient power to wound, but they repeat the same themes over and over, without always connecting to the central narrative strands. The trials and tribulations of characters living “the life” are described vividly, but do we need to be reminded of them 15 times?
When she was Ma Rainey at the National Theatre last year, there were complaints that we did not hear enough of the wondrous vocal tones of Sharon D Clarke MBE. Happily, we get a lot more in her role as the ageing hooker Sonya; her song complaining about being “too old for the oldest profession” is a definite highlight. Clarke is a star already, but Williams matches her stride-for-stride, note-for-note, particularly in two stunning duets, and this evidence suggests that she is also destined to make it big. Cornell S John has a menacing presence as the ruthless pimp Memphis, Albury gives a gutsy performance as Fleetwood and Woodward makes the transition from naive to naughty convincingly.
Tom Jackson Greaves’ lively and colourful choreography has the chorus bumping and grinding to great effect, but it is between the dance routines that the energy of Blakemore’s production often flags and its focus wanders away from the core stories. Some trimming, particularly in the first half could have helped the director to deliver a tighter and more consistently paced show. As it is, there are many memorable moments, but the overall feeling is one of slight disappointment.
Performance date: 30 March 2017