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Encores! The Life

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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.


"Our specialty has been unearthing lesser-known gems from the Broadway canon, brought to life by sparkling talent and the sublime Encores! Orchestra led by Music Director Rob Berman, inviting us to encounter these scores afresh."

Indeed 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.

In 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.


JL: Given Porters intent to modernize the show and widen its appeal what do you think of his replacing the orchestra with this funky combo?


DS: 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 work. 


JL: I remember the original as lighter and funnier though dealing with the same story.

Porter 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?

Did you find any humor in the characters or pathos?



DS: 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 display.


However 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.


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Equally 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. 


JL: What traditionally saves a musical is the choreography (Ac Ciulla) and the costumes (Anita Yavich) -the "look" of the show.


What 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.


While 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 authentic.


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Mykal Kilgor and cast


And the "chorus line" looked like something out of Barnum's circus of misfits,

So 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".

Were 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


JL: 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.

i.e. 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.


JL: 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


May 4 – 15, 2022

Tickets start at $35

Recommended for audiences ages 10+