by Greer Firestone

THE LIFE at Wilmington Drama League through October 1.

THE LIFE, a rarely performed musical by Tony Award winning composer Cy Coleman, makes its Delaware premiere at The Wilmington Drama League.

The production is a gritty portrayal of pimps, prostitutes and the motley and unsavory crew of lowlifes in the big city. The subject matter is not dissimilar to Coleman’s mega hit 3 decades earlier, SWEET CHARITY. (The lead character Charity Hope Valentine, played by the inestimable Gwen Verdon, was also a prostitute). And that show also had going for it the choreography of Verdon’s hubby, Bob Fosse.

Hence, the reason why, gentle reader, you have never heard of this. Coleman’s predilections aside, THE LIFE is a poor man’s CHARITY; one might even say a beggarly version. Not only are the prostitutes destitute, so is the dialogue, the melodies, the lyrics, the dancing and the truancy of laughs. I took note of only one character with anything resembling redeeming or likable qualities.

(I take that back. There was one laugh. One of the ‘hookers’ exclaims, “I’ve been in 7 beds tonight and haven’t slept in one of them!”)

There are many “why’s” to this production: Why did the very talented musician/director and certified theatre persona Tina Sheing choose this show; why did WDL think it would sell to their patrons and fundamentally, why was this ever created in the first place?

WDL staged two Standing O shows last year with RENT and CHICAGO. THE LIFE will not be remembered in the company’s pantheon. The latter show was blessed with the signature pelvic thrusts and fedora hats of Bob Fosse. Choreographer Jody Anderson did a fabulous job in its recreation. In THE LIFE the choreography had none (life, that is) for Anderson had no baseline talent with which to work.

As the array of costumes for the ‘hookers’ paraded out, I could only think of the now deceased  flamboyant  designer Blackstone, who would come on TV the day after The Academy Awards and pulverize each Red Carpet walker who was not appareled to his taste. Lacking his wit,  Aisle Say shall be discreet and leave it at that. There was no one designated “Costume Designer”. I would imagine no one wished to take final responsibility for the ungainly cluster of colors, corsets and bosoms over-breeching their bodices.

Multi-tasker Matt Casarino generally does yeoman work with musical direction. His offstage band overpowered the dialogue during a large portion of Act 1.

The leading woman Queen (Sharon Brown Ruegsegger) is a veteran of local theatre. Her voice, especially in “He’s No Good”, a painful elegy to her scheming and manipulative man, is the highlight of the production.

These are the apogees and nadirs of community theater. This is about volunteers who not only play on stage but serve on the boards, build and paint sets, forage at Goodwill for costumes, hunt for props at yard sales and spend countless late hours on creating a product for the public good.

Next up at WDL is Neil Simon’s laugh classic BAREFOOT IN THE PARK. Simon, by the way, was the librettist for SWEET CHARITY.

Book by Ira Gasman
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Ira Gasman
Directed by Tina Sheing
September 16-October 1, 2011
Wilmington Drama League
10 West Lea Blvd
Wilmington DE 19802

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Dana D September 22, 2011 - 10:02 pm

Your review of the talent in this show is disrespectful, false and unprofessional. I found that although the show had some flaws that you obviously didn’t get it. Mr. Firestone, you sound like a bitter old man who is angry for never finding your Broadway star. There was more than one laugh and the Hookers Ball scene to me was entertaining and ironic. It wasn’ t meant to be serious. As for the dancing, how can the cast shine if there was minimal choreography? One of the male dancers who had a solo was very good and the voices, aside from some technical issues, were strong. You acknowledge that these people put in countless hours volunteering yet you expect this to be a Broadway production? Shame on you for your Simon Cowell remarks. It’s time to stop reviewing shows so harshly that will damage the community aspect of this theater.

Anonymous September 26, 2011 - 11:53 am

Dana…If reviewers gave glowing reviews to every show done in Wilmington, then Wilmington theater would never improve. I have seen countless productions in and around Wilmington and I saw the show in question, and I have to agree. This is the absolute worst show I’ve ever paid money to see.

Not only is the show itself unentertaining (script and songs are lackluster at best), but the direction and acting were the worst I have ever seen. Vocally this show had a lot going for it. many of the leads have amazing voices….but I didn’t care one bit for what they were singing, or what they were singing about.

Wilmington Drama League has done much much better and I’m sure their upcoming productions will be worth seeing. But people should pass on this. It;s just not good.

His review was not disrespectful, nor was it false or unprofessional….just honest.

Anonymous September 29, 2011 - 11:29 am

I saw this show as well and I understand the root of some of the criticism from Mr. Firestone. However, at the heart of this is what I think is a philosophical difference. This is Community Theatre. The question in my mind is, is this more about Community or Theatre? Is it more about Inclusion or about finding the absolute best people that will pour their heart into an endeavor for nothing regardless of their involvement in the local community? Is it more about opportunity or success? I tend to think the former, I suspect Mr. Firestone suspects the latter.

Yes, the costumes were garish as I suspect they were designed to be. Most of the characters were nasty people who you would not want to spend time with or meet in a dark alley. This is a dark play but ends with a message of hope and redemption. As pointed out, the singing was wonderful, the sets masterfully done, the costumes colorful and garish and the band was outstanding. I understand that patrons pay good money to go to a show at WDL but this is not Broadway and I wouldn’t expect a Broadway caliber show. This is certainly not a school play or amateur production.

Ultimately I judge a show, as with any work of art, by how it made me feel. Did it elicit a reaction from the viewer? Well if emotion was the sole judge of quality, this show has it in spades! I at times felt angry, sad, disgusted, hopeful and joyful throughout this show. By writing a largely negative review, I’m afraid Mr. Firestone has denied potential audiences of an opportunity to experience this show for themselves. This is a complex show full of emotion and grit and I applaud the cast and Director for having the guts to mount a show like this. Sure WDL could play it safe and mount YET ANOTHER production of South Pacific or Oklahoma but I’m not sure that would have been any more satisfying and certainly doesn’t seem to me to be the mission of community theatre. Maybe I’m wrong but I’m a paying customer so I think I have some right to my opinion.

I’d encourage anyone who is interested in seeing Real Community Theatre push the envelope a little to check out this show and judge for yourself. If you are expecting a Broadway production for $20 you will be disappointed. If you go with an open mind, you may just have one of the most interesting theatre experiences of your year.

Jack Shaw
Jack Shaw October 6, 2011 - 12:16 pm

I have to agree with the first anonymous to some degree. I believe there is a reason the director chose this play. For the reasons outlined, she wasn’t able to pull it off successfully according to one reviewer. I’ve disagreed with reviewers before. Perspective is always a factor: what kind of theatre is this? Community, non-profit, professional or something else.

Every director has a play in mind that may have failed to make the cut on Broadway, but feels with their approach it will succeed. It’s obvious to me the reviewer found many faults that he justified as best he could. Quite frankly, some directors are actors who have been in so many plays they think they can direct as well. I’m not saying that’s the case here, but it does happen in community theatre.

Sometimes you just don’t know. “What was the director or theatre thinking?” Sometimes you put it in perspective and say, “Well, the community efforts showed, and this is a tough show.” It sounds like this one was quite the challenge to pull off–especially being compared to SWEET CHARITY on subject matter alone. Community theatre has issues, no doubt. It has positives, too, in that the theatre represents the community. As a reviewer myself, I don’t have the same expectations for professional and community theatre. There are also the “school” productions. That’s putting things in perspective.

You want to blast a reviewer, blast them for not putting production in perspective, not providing constructive criticism and not just summarizing the play for you. Don’t just blast them for being negative. I want to blast some reviewers for being too positive all the time. A good way to ruin theatre is to send people to the theatre when they will be disappointed and never come back. When you attempt art, you open yourself up to opinion. You want to please everyone, but you can’t.


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