photos by Joan Marcus
Encores! The Life
by Jeanne Lieberman
& David Schultz
Encores! is a Tony-honored concert series dedicated to
performing rarely heard American musicals, usually with their original
orchestrations. Presented by New York City Center since 1994, Encores! has
revived shows by Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, George and Ira Gershwin,
Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim, among many others. The
series was led by artistic director Jack Viertel from 2001 to 2020; in October
2019, City Center announced that Lear deBessonet will take over as artistic director
beginning with the 2021 Encores! season.
specialty has been unearthing lesser-known gems from the Broadway canon,
brought to life by sparkling talent and the sublime Encores! Orchestra led
Director Rob Berman, inviting us to encounter these scores
one could always count on a sparkling evening of music from a larger than
normal orchestra in its rightful place, center stage, as the star of each show.
this his first season as artistic director, replacing beloved Jack Viertel,
Lear seems to have had a drastic memory lapse when he allowed Billy Porter
depart from protocol.
Given Porters intent to modernize the show and widen its appeal what
do you think of his replacing the orchestra with this funky combo?
The funky orchestrations (by music director James Sampliner) certainly did veer
away from the razz-ma-tazz showbiz sparkle heard in the original Broadway
production. The early scenes on display were played to the hilt, with the
singers bleating out the lyrics to an almost unintelligible level. Flailing and
twitching about the opening spasmodic scenes were inexcusably cartoonish and
awkward. The sound design was overmiked to excess. As the night wore on the
decibel level did eventually lower to a decent soundscape so the audience could
actually hear what was being sung. Mr. Porter given full rein to alter and auto-correct
his revision, makes the new version more “woke” with changes that are
demonstrably rawer and cruder in tone and actually does a disservice to the
remember the origin
lighter and funnier though dealing with the same story.
commented extensively that he wanted to show the black lives in a more humane
you think he succeeded i.e. were you drawn to the plight of any of them?
you find any humor in the characters or pathos?
Mr. Porter has stated in interviews that he thought that the original book
did not create a space where there was empathy for the hooker pimp world. He
wanted to crack open the storyline to show the pain and depth that wasn't
presented in its original form. Porter wanted an alternate take....a
musical drama instead of a musical comedy. The problem with his update is
that this musical can be both of those things simultaneously. But it veers
mostly into the darker aspects of the lives of these working girls with a
dreary undercurrent that drags the audience down. It should be a mix of joy and
pain...but the new version leans strongly toward the painful aspects
inherent in the musical. Joy and spirited fun as a whole is severely
lacking. Pathos in buckets, yes...but fully rounded portraits not much on
there were a few standout performers with two rousing musical numbers that
were extraordinary. Antwayn Hopper portrayed kingpin pimp Memphis
with peacock grandeur, displaying his muscular glistening body, frequently
shirtless, he tore off the roof with his rendition of the song "My Way or
The Highway" His admonishment and nasty demeanor in this song
was perfectly paired with his deep soul infused growling pitch. Practically
operatic in tone.
yet in a more reflective mood that began slowly as the emotional level
increased incrementally was the most famous song in the show.
Perfectly hitting all the levels of emotion singer Ledisi essayed the role of
aging Sonja singing "The Oldest Profession" on an empty stage.
This was one of the few genuine moments that gave the audience what the entire
production lacked....A real emotional rollercoaster that encapsulated her
aging tortured soul. If the new revision had more of what these two
performers displayed onstage this Life would have be a revelation.
What traditionally saves a musical is the choreography (Ac
Ciulla) and the costumes (Anita Yavich) -the "look" of the show.
I am about to confess may be considered unprofessional, but I felt a pang of
discomfort as we were introduced to the cast, both the dancers and the main
characters, were to me singularly unattractive.
the costumes were reminiscent of the day they didn't enhance any of the
characters, and those huge afro wigs were off putting to me though probably
Mykal Kilgor and cast
the "chorus line" looked like something out of Barnum's circus of
it was hard to empathize with JoJo, pimp/lover (Mykal Kilgor) or that skinny
blonde "innocent" (Erika Olsen) just off the train who suddenly
became more of a pro reveling in joining the "Life".
you able to transcend their "look"?
DS: I actually enjoyed the retro look of the hair and costume
design. It was rather funky and tried a bit too hard to get the look of the
times, but if you glance at the films and advertisements of the timeframe
it does seem the couture is on point. Rather than distract the costumes
glowed with a winking eye and had a humorous nod to that era. The joyful
sense of fun that was rather lacking in the production was encased
in those funkadelic vibe costumes
As the second act wore on it became more and
more preachy as if Porter was running out of
time and had yet to deliver his proclaimed "improvements" by several heavy-handed attempts to bring it up to date.
putting the cartoon heads of Trump and Reagan on two of his dancers in what
seemed to be a meaningless chorus line. And the most egregious misstep was
adding a transsexual element to the show's heroine.
DS: This aspect that the
change of a character into a transsexual was clearly intentional, and it did
give an emotional aspect to the show. The fact that Trans people
are severely underrepresented then and now, is a tragedy. That they
are frequently ignored or shunned by the gay community cannot be
overlooked. This new addition did portray a more vivid look into a rarely shown
sexuality on stage. The second act defiantly stared down into
the overwhelmingly "white privileged audience" (to
quote Mr. Porter) and pressed hard to make sure that these progressive
rich folks got the message. A sledgehammer effect that
was overtly writ large whereas a more subtle touch would have had a
better effect on its intended target.
Given the above unfortunate choices, the mediocrity of Encores! opening show The Tap Dance Kid, and the
fact that new artistic director himself would be directing the third and final
show of the season, Into the
Woods (what can he do to Sondheim?), I wonder at the future of the
previously impeccable, beloved Encores! series under this new hand.
Into the Woods
Special two-week run
4 – 15, 2022
start at $35
for audiences ages 10+