Sunday, April 5, 2009

Theater Review: Pal Joey

Even at my advanced age, I’m not old enough to have seen Gene Kelly in the original 1940 production of Pal Joey on Broadway. But I attended performances of the musical so often during its splendid revival in 1954 that my parents jokingly suggested that I use the Broadhurst Theater on 44th Street as my permanent address.

And I probably went too far when I told a stunned committee of professors at Columbia University that I wanted to write my doctorate dissertation on that ground-breaking musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, a work the duo based on characters in John O’Hara’s mordacious and biting short stories.

Another theme, audience reaction in theater, was finally approved by the council; and yet, my original choice indicates exactly how passionate I felt about this particular Broadway show.

For the recent Roundabout Theater Company’s fine revival, expertly directed by Joe Mantello, at New York’s Studio 54, Richard Greenberg provided a new book. It’s true that I had always strongly believed that every line in O’Hara’s libretto should be sacrosanct. And yet, the revamped work can be plausibly justified because the basic and essential details remain unchanged.

The play’s critical action still takes place during the 1940’s, the setting remains both the sleazy and opulent sections of Chicago and the production succeeds on all counts.

During the lush overture (under the direction of Paul Gemignani), several thugs are seen beating a man below the elevated railroad tracks. At the conclusion of this brief prelude, the victim, Joey Evans, tidies up, picks up a suitcase and, when the scrim is lifted, walks into a South Side nightclub (inventively lit by Paul Gallo). Bar lights are lowered and a huge spiral staircase, which dominates Scott Pask’s impressive set, descends from street level.

Joey is played here by Matthew Risch, an understudy who took over the role after Christian Hoff was injured during a rehearsal. Risch looks the part; he sings well and dances impressively, but what he doesn’t have is that “star quality” that someone like Bob Fosse had in the role. Still, he’s certainly competent as the hoofer who wants to be the star who will eventually manage his own night club. And once he’s talked Mike (Robert Clohessy), the club’s proprietor, into hiring him, Joey immediately clashes with the aging lead performer, Gladys Bumps (a wonderful Martha Plimpton).

Plimpton “stops” the show twice. She leads the girls in the hilarious “The Flower Garden of My Heart,” splendidly choreographed by Graciela Daniele, as Daniel Marcus sings, “I’ve got roses as red as your mouth./Just to keep our love holy/I’ve got gladioli/And sun flowers fresh from the South.”

Plimpton is specially effective performing “Zip,” the show-stopping number assigned to the great Elaine Stritch in the 1954 revival. (“Zip!,” she sings as she begins to remove a glove, “I was reading Schopenhauer last night./Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right.”)

At the center of this revival is a charismatic, commanding Stockard Channing as Mrs. Vera Simpson, an immensely wealthy woman who is saddled with an oblivious husband. Looking elegantly glamorous in one of William Ivey Long’s exemplary outfits, she walks into the club one evening with two inebriated men, Mr. Armour and Mr. Swift (a joke the audience didn’t seem to get at the performance I attended), and is immediately attracted to Joey. Not long after this initial meeting, Channing delivers the show’s most famous song, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Hart’s cunning lyrics tell us just how far the affair has gone: “Though at first we said no sir/Now we’re like two little dears/You might say we are closer/Than Roebuck is to Sears.” And though Channing is not a trained singer, she brings off the number magnificently.

The affair, however, is complicated. At the beginning of the play’s first act, Joey picks up a naive Linda English (a fine Jenny Fellner). To make matters worse, Linda works in the tailor shop where Vera buys clothing for Joey. And because Joey refuses to drop Linda, he somehow ends up losing the pair. In a wonderful duet, the two women explain why they’ve decided to abandon Joey. And together they sing, “I hope that things will go well with him;/I bear no hate./All I can say is the hell with him,/He gets the gate.” And now Joey has only one person on whom he can depend -- himself. For a moment, Linda rethinks her position, but Joey goes off on his own. “I can’t be sure of girls,” he sings. “I’m not at home with men. I’m ending up with me again.” The curtain falls and, once again, this grown-up musical play has left an indelible impression on this compliant theatergoer.