By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Poignant ugliness pervades The Life, the tuneful musical about prostitutes and pimps. The show is now onstage at the Trinity River Arts Center in an eye-popping regional premiere produced by the Uptown Players.
The year is 1980. The place is pre-Disneyfied 42nd Street. Under the glow of porn theater marquees, tired whores in too-tight hot pants and ripped fishnets struggle to meet their nightly quota. "You got some kind of motor down there?'' says one harried working girl to another. "It's not a motor, honey, it's a meter,'' her friend answers, "and it's always runnin'.''
Such is the pace of life in The Life. Funny, passionate and ultimately tragic, this 150-minute musical moves at a frantic clip as it explores the grungier flipside of the "Hey, Big Spender'' Park Avenue hooker biz depicted in Sweet Charity, whose score also was composed by Cy Coleman (he did Barnum and Will Rogers Follies, too, and The Life is better than both of those). No prozzies find redemption in this one. Queen, Sonja, Frenchie, Chichi and the other streetwalkers who populate The Life are too old, too fleshy or too strung out to work uptown like Charity Hope Valentine did. These gals are as much a part of the rugged landscape of the old Times Square as triple-X peep shows and three-card monte.
It's gritty stuff, made even meaner by the male characters, a lordly pimp named Memphis and a good-looking, coked-up con man named Fleetwood. They rule their women's lives and bodies with balled-up fists and violent threats. Queen and her friends, try as they might, can't escape them or give up the easy money they make in the sex business. The women are further humiliated watching a new girl, Mary from Minnesota, step off a bus at Port Authority and almost immediately transition from prostitution to a better-paying career in porn. Pretty Woman it ain't.
All of the main roles in The Life call for heavy lifting in the singing and acting departments. Director Bruce Coleman couldn't have found stronger leads than Natalie Wilson King as Queen, M. Denise Lee as her weary friend Sonja, Cedric Neal as Fleetwood, Stephanie Young as Mary, Casey Robinson as Jojo (another pimp and the story's opening and closing narrator) and Patrick Amos as Memphis. One after another, these performers deliver moments to remember, particularly King, Lee and Amos, who are so supremely talented somebody somewhere needs to write a show just for them right now. Lee, her voice sounding a little smokier than usual, not only belts several big numbers, including the sad-funny anthem "The Oldest Profession,'' her character gets many of the best lines in the script (by David Newman, Coleman and Ira Gasman). Says Sonja, "Girl, I got eyes in the back o' my ass.''
Starting their third season, Uptown Players producers Jeff Rane and Craig Lynch have their eyes squarely on their audience, the Oak Lawn crowd who crave new musicals and dig edgy, adult material. Uptown has booked three regional premieres this season. After The Life comes Charles Busch's gay-centric comedy Red Scare on Sunsetand writer-composer Andrew Lippa's version of The Wild Party. This theater attracts top area performers, and the casts seem to get better with each new show.
The Life features the most complicated technical and artistic work here yet. Andy Redmon's set design takes up half the theater space yet makes easy switches between garbage-strewn street scenes and a couple of interiors. Julie Simmons' lighting design has hundreds of cues, but the changes are never distracting. Costumes by Bruce Coleman and Binnie Tomaro are appropriately trashy, even witty. The modern zoot suits worn by Memphis are both garish and menacing in their sharp details. As always, musical director Scott A. Eckert keeps the five-piece combo tight. His keyboard work is dynamite. Ditto the way Dan Cason blows those woodwinds.
This is a knockout show that carries a hard R-rating. There's profanity, stripping, physical violence and simulated drug use. Hell, they even smoke cigarettes onstage. The Life, unfiltered.
Director Terry Martin, on loan from Addison's WaterTower Theatre, has assembled a good cast of students and one terrific pro, veteran comic actress Mary Anna Austin. She's not the title character, but as the effervescent yet unapologetically evil Mrs. Siezmagraff, Austin registers a rib-rattling five on the comedy Richter Scale.
The play is a satirical commentary on America's obsession with tawdry TV talk shows, televised celebrity trials, show-biz gossip and all that other low-culture twaddle we love more than life itself. College coed Betty (Kristi Humphreys) rents a summer cottage with her ditzy friend Trudy (Margaret Athene Chaplin). They share the place with secretive nerd Keith (Bobby Selah), who may be a serial killer, and sex-crazed surf bum Buck (Ryan Schneider), who's fond of showing off his album of "dick pix.'' Mrs. Siezmagraff moves in, too, and turns out to be Trudy's mom. She brings a date home for dinner, a raincoat-clad flasher named Mr. Vanislaw (Rick Tuman).
Now, that's about as clear as the plot breakdown gets. Early on, Durang goes into the surreal world, introducing a three-voice laugh track that interrupts the live actors. The voices eventually get bored and become a Greek chorus, commenting on the play. Then suddenly, the trio appears in the flesh and starts directing the onstage events, demanding that characters do increasingly vile things--the American id personified.
Jokes fly about incest, rape, child abuse and other high crimes. There are references to spree killer Andrew Cunanan and manhood pruner Lorena Bobbitt. Penises are juggled. A character's head goes missing. The F- and C-bombs drop like party balloons. The chorus hoots and taunts, asking for more fresh meat from Betty et. al. When a character thrills the threesome, he or she is nominated for a People's Choice Award.
"It's all your fault, Mother,'' Trudy moans of the hideous goings-on. "And Oliver Stone's fault for making Natural Born Killers.''
Arriving amid the post-Janet/Justin madness, Betty's Summer Vacation is a wickedly bitter reminder of the deeply marked-down price of outrage these days.