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They Work Hard for the Money

All hail irrationality! And Wayne Gretsky too (hold on a minute -- we'll get to that). Irrationality is the only explanation of why the Atlantis Playhouse's Gary Waldman decided against all logic to present The Life, a stark, gritty musical about pimps and prostitutes that's a 180-degree change from the Playhouse's usual safe, soft fare. The Life is daunting at every level -- its story line is rough and downbeat, its language often harsh and sometimes profane, its multiracial cast a decided departure from typical Playhouse ensembles, its production demands far beyond the theater's modest resources, and, most unsettling of all, the show is virtually unknown (this is the absolute first regional theater production). All of this should, by any sense of logic, be sending the Playhouse's regular, older audiences headed for the exits, if they come at all. Instead, these audiences are standing up not to clear out but to cheer. Sometimes lunacy is the best policy.

The Life is a sort of musical Lower Depths, a multiplotted look at the denizens of the Times Square district in the bad old 1980s, before the area got Disneyfied. Back in the day, Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street was a churning cauldron of low-life action, a mix of hookers, hustlers, dealers, and con men, all preying on and preyed upon by the upright society that flowed around and through it, like a parallel universe. One story from this naked city concerns Queen, a soulful singer from Savannah who has hit hard times in Manhattan. To make ends meet, she began hooking, but her earnings are always snorted away by her boyfriend, Fleetwood, a drug-addicted Vietnam vet who has become her pimp. Trouble arrives to this romance in the person of wide-eyed Mary, a Minnesota cutie who steps off a Greyhound at the Port Authority and into the clutches of Fleetwood, who plans to pimp her too. Queen is furious at Fleetwood and seeks help from an even bigger pimp, Memphis, who promptly ensnares her into servitude. While Mary finds her way into porno stardom, Queen desperately tries to flee "the life," the world of sex for sale that's really a living death.

The Life began as a concept that songwriter/lyricist Ira Gasman pitched to master tunesmith Cy Coleman. Coleman is a Broadway legend, a multiple Tony, Emmy, and Grammy winner whose résumé reads like a laundry list of Broadway hits --Sweet Charity, Barnum, and City of Angels among them. Coleman's rich melodies span an array of styles, from snazzy Broadway numbers to soul, gospel, and funk, aided and abetted by Gasman's witty, pointed lyrics. It's easy to see why this tale of marginal dreamers would appeal to Coleman -- his body of work is full of heartache and aspiration, centering on American dreams, illusions, and rude awakenings. The show began modestly at the off-off Broadway Westbeth Theatre, then moved uptown to Broadway, where it received critical acclaim, two Tony awards, 11 Tony nominations, and a run of more than a year from 1997 to 1998.

At the Atlantis, the show goes back to its low-rent roots. The Playhouse, co-existing in a nondescript strip mall with a Mexican eatery and a billiards emporium, is a 150-seat house with a wide walkway of a stage and a light grid with fewer instruments in the air than many hair salons. Still, sweet are the uses of adversity; in assaying this big musical, director/producer Waldman and company have pulled off something of a pocket miracle. Liabilities are turned into assets: Matthew Decker's set, a bar balanced by a graffiti-smeared brick wall, is decidedly low-rent, but it suits the story.

The Broadway company's cast of 21 is pared down to 13, but this makes the show more intimate, less a spectacle, and more a character study, all of which better suits the performance space. There's a range of skill and vocal effectiveness in the cast, but all bring a fierce commitment that's impossible to resist. As the imperiled Queen, Jeanne Lynn Gray is particularly effective, offering an intriguing combination of sultry appeal, wounded vulnerability, and a soulful, expressive singing voice. Her renditions of "I'm Leaving You" and "We Had a Dream" are memorable. Ben Bagby is also strong and affecting as her prevaricating swain; Bagby and Gray make this sweet-and-sour relationship work. You can see why Queen loves the man and why he's toxic for her. Other notables include Dean Swann, whose slick, sinewy turn as narrator/hustler Jojo adds a corrosive charm, and Carl Barber-Steele as the menacing Memphis. Barber-Steele starts off slowly, a preening clothes horse who's a frightening predator when he needs to be. As Queen's best pal, Sonja, Nadeen Holloway has several showstoppers, including "The Oldest Profession." The rest of the ensemble all bring energy and character detail, helping to conjure up a seedy society that's repellent yet compelling. With crisp, efficient staging from Waldman and his Fosse-influenced choreographer, Kevin Black, the result is a dynamic musical adventure that seethes with life, sex, despair, and hope.

This isn't a perfect show by any means. While the music and songs are superior, the weak, typical book by David Newman, Gassman, and Coleman is a decided drawback. These characters lack much true detail or the specificity of real lives lived. The production itself has its weaknesses. The orchestration, using recorded music and musical director Phil Hinton doing good service on piano and keyboards, must be low cost by necessity, but the sound levels are so high, many of the lyrics are drowned out, despite the tiny theater space and the performers' body mics.

Never mind, though, because this Life is a big, gutsy gamble for the tiny Atlantis and a one-of-a-kind chance for area playgoers to catch a fine show in a fine production. If audiences turn out for The Life, perhaps the Atlantis may find a new identity as a purveyor of neglected musical gems. They certainly have got one going on now. Oh, right, what was that about Wayne Gretsky? The Hall of Fame hockey great is credited with a wise epigram we all should keep in mind: "You can't score if you don't take a shot."

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