The Life

Circle Theatre

Schoolhouse Rock Live Too!


at the Theatre Building

By Jack Helbig

Musicals get a bad rap. Call it a Pollyanna rap: the stereotype goes that musicals are concerned only with light, airy subjects and always end happily. It’s this conception that makes a parody of musicals like South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut so hilarious. But it isn’t really true.

Musicals haven’t been silly or shallow at least since the heyday of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 40s and 50s, when they filled their stories with real characters facing real problems and made room for the darker sides of the human psyche. The most successful of their shows–Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific–touch on lust, rape, murder, racism, and spouse abuse. The Sound of Music ends with a dozen or so Nazis armed with machine guns chasing the von Trapp family through a graveyard. Still, when people hear “Rodgers and Hammerstein” they think of a Norman Rockwell worldview and the sort of lush, overorchestrated music that only grandmothers would appreciate.

The truth is Stephen Sondheim has written shows about cannibalism in Victorian England and about men who tried to kill the president of the United States. Director Sam Mendes took the Kander and Ebb show Chicago, already pretty dark and sexual when Bob Fosse choreographed it in the 70s, and made it darker and sexier still.

And then there’s The Life, composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Ira Gasman’s 1997 musical about the drugs and prostitution in pre-Disneyfied Times Square, circa 1980. Taking a page from Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, Coleman, Gasman, and David Newman’s book gets the milieu down pretty well–the hookers and pimps and junkies and assorted hangers-on. Then they focus on the story’s main characters–a prostitute named Queen and her pimp-lover Fleetwood–and their attempts to leave the Life behind. The score contains some marvelous songs, with soaring ballads and witty novelty numbers. “I’m getting too old for the oldest profession,” one woman sings early in the show, while Queen, fresh from a weekend on Rikers Island, croons that it’s “a lovely day to be out of jail.”

The Life collected two Tony awards, but it was a box-office flop. There were no post-Broadway tours, and none of Chicago’s major venues for musicals would touch it. That’s how a small storefront like Circle Theatre got the honor of producing the local premiere of a Tony-winning play.

But for audiences used to films about the sleazy side of New York– Crimes of Passion, Taxi Driver–this work pulls its punches way too often. We never see a trick, and for the most part the police are absent. When they do appear, they play the same role as in Charlie Chaplin movies: uniformed authority figures who simply show up at the wrong time and put the kibosh on everyone’s fun.

It would have taken a brilliant director equally at home with dance, cynical comedy, and the skin trade to make this material soar. Unfortunately, Bob Fosse is dead. He pulled together Coleman’s last foray into the demimonde, the much sweeter Sweet Charity, a candy-coated take on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria with a euphemistic book by Neil Simon. If it weren’t for Fosse’s sultry choreography, you’d never know that taxi dancer Charity is in the same profession as Queen in The Life.

There’s certainly enough here for a strong director with a vision to fashion a hit, though the first act is way too long–the book and score overall could use trimming. (I suspect that Broadway director Michael Blakemore treated the show too respectfully, which may have helped it flop.) But no director with any chops would have allowed the show to come out of previews looking like this. Circle Theatre’s director-choreographer Kevin Bellie keeps losing his grip, and in some ways you can’t blame him. The show is a walking contradiction, one minute condemning prostitution, the next reveling in it; one minute pitying Queen and her fellow hookers and the next portraying them as strong, empowered, and in control.

The problem is that Bellie can’t decide how raunchy to make his show. In one scene a cocktail waitress is enticed into stripping off her top, but in this production she primly keeps her back to the audience. Fosse would have found dance moves to say “stripped naked” without stripping her naked. By avoiding the play’s raunchiness, Bellie and his collaborators lose some of its power. Queen is a whore. Fleetwood is her love interest, but he’s also a pimp and a junkie who betrays her every time he blows their nest egg on some more blow.

Yet the production, like the show, has some strengths. DeAnna N.J. Brooks as Queen is a real find. Whenever she enters, all eyes are on her. And this woman knows how to make a song smoke. Ty Perry as Fleetwood is up to his usual standard. But it’s odd to single out performances in an ensemble this powerful. And Circle’s tatty storefront space and shoestring production actually make the show seem more genuine. Among this staging’s highlights are Robert A. Knuth’s clever set, whose portable walls help accentuate this world’s fake and tawdry aspects, and music director John Steinhagen’s miraculous use of a piano and drum kit. But without a clear director’s vision and better material, all this is good money thrown after bad.

If you’re looking for a sweet musical, look no further than Schoolhouse Rock Live Too!, a sequel of sorts to Theatrebam’s long-running hit Schoolhouse Rock Live! Like the original, this show cobbles together songs from the popular Saturday-morning educational spots ABC broadcast along with lots of ads for cereals and toys. Like Sesame Street, these spots attempted to combine TV-style entertainment with education–though whether they educated anyone remains open to debate.

What is true is that the songs are catchy: once one of these tunes gets into your head, it’s as hard to dislodge as a jingle. And many of them are fond reminders of childhood days, when the big issues were what to watch on TV and what to eat while watching it.

Scott Ferguson, George Keating, Nina Lynn, and Dennis Curley have come up with a story almost as flimsy as in the first show, which focused on a neophyte schoolteacher obsessing about how to teach his kids. This time the owner of a diner is worrying how she’s going to attract more customers. Of course, the answer lies in the Schoolhouse Rock songs in both cases. We don’t really buy that they’ll save the beloved greasy spoon. But we don’t care. Ferguson’s direction is lively, his choreography (created in collaboration with Jay Rapp and Karyn Harrelson) is energetic, and his ensemble, mostly newcomers, are up to the job of making these sweet ditties likable.

Still, most of the best songs from the series seem to have been used in the first show, so this one feels like a collection of also-rans. There are some faves from last time sprinkled in–“I’m Just a Bill,” “Interjections!” and “Conjunction Junction”–as if to say, hey, we know this new score isn’t quite as good. It’s not, but it’s still fun.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Greg Kolack/Tom Gustafson.