The Life

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In its L.A. premiere, there's indeed plenty of life in this 1997 gem, the last Broadway musical by composer Cy Coleman. Jaxx Theatricals' auspicious maiden offering bursts with energy and pizzazz, thanks to Joe Greene's vibrant direction and music direction and Paul Romero Jr.'s galvanic choreography. Gutsy, heartfelt performances seal the deal.

The pulsating score is almost on a par with Coleman's finest work (City of Angels, Sweet Charity). Though the libretto by David Newman, Ira Gasman, and Coleman suggests TV-movie melodrama at times, its story of lowlife denizens surrounding Manhattan's 42nd Street in the 1980s ultimately evokes a dramatic potency reminiscent of gritty urban dramas such as Stephen Adly Guirgis' In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings.

The title refers to the world's oldest profession, as practiced by Queen (Dionne Gipson) and her close friend Sonja (Cheryl Murphy-Johnson). The naive Queen prefers to think of her pimp Fleetwood (Robert Gee) as a lover rather than a user, but when she discovers he's disloyal, she falls for the sweet talk of the conniving Memphis (David St. Louis), who's determined to have Queen work for him. But the grass proves less than greener when Memphis shows his true colors, and Sonja attempts to help Queen flee the city to escape the ruthless scumbag's clutches.

As the abused yet courageous Queen, Gipson eloquently illuminates the never-ending hope of this beaten-down woman, earning our empathy in her sublime rendition of the ballad "We Had a Dream." Murphy-Johnson is a stellar presence, especially when she expresses sass and strength when singing about the emotional and physical exhaustion of her lot in life. St. Louis is terrifying as the brutal Memphis, and his booming baritone is glorious. Gee's pimp-with-a-touch-of-conscience is credible and compelling. Other excellent work comes from Stephanie Girard as a Midwest transplant who quickly falls into the sordid scene, Ethan Le Phong as a back-stabbing hustler, and Chris Cobb Olsen as a slick porn producer. Dan Selon's amazing costumes and John Ryman's atmospheric lighting deserve salutes. In its finest moments, this electrifying production captures the operatic grace and emotional punch of West Side Story.

Presented by Jaxx Theatricals

at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood.

Dec. 6–21. Tue.–Sun., 8 p.m.

Jaxx Theatricals