New York City Theater
The action starts at once, during the overture, as the eponymous anti-hero is smashed to the ground by vengeful gangsters. This is a revival of “Pal Joey” in the style of film noir: angry, dark, cynical, acerbic and paranoid. The iconic Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart-John O’Hara musical that opened Dec. 25, 1940, was a groundbreaker in its depiction of a conniving though charming hoofer who'd sell anything, especially himself, to get ahead. Now, 68 years later, furnished with a tough new book by Richard Greenberg, derivatively directed by Joe Mantello as if it were “Chicago.” and tentatively choreographed by Graciela Daniele, “Pal Joey” is back.
Even though it can’t quite make up its mind what it wants to be and is too remote to be engaging, the Broadway revival finds the brash undertones of characters in search of themselves: conniving, charming Joey, the hoofer who’d sell anything, especially himself, to get ahead; calculating Vera Simpson, the rich dame whose boy-toy he becomes; two-timing Gladys; trusting but wise Linda. And, oh, that witty, melodic, still-fresh score! (“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” ”In Our Little Den of Iniquity,” “Take Him,” “You Mustn’t Kick It Around,” “Zip.”)
Cutting the role of reporter Melba Snyder and giving her song, "Zip," to entertainer Gladys Bumps, while doing no overt harm to the plot, makes the song into a performance number rather than a character piece, killing the lyric's meaning. The other musical changes are adding "I Still Believe in You" from the 1930 Broadway show “Simple Simon” and "Are You My Love" from the 1936 film “Dancing Pirate” — both used to beef up Joey's relationship with Linda English, the naïve young woman he makes a move on before meeting his meal ticket in socialite Vera Simpson.
The revival also reinstates Joey's climactic "I'm Talkin' to My Pal," dropped from the show's original Broadway production but reinstated at both Encores and Goodspeed’s sensational 1990 production. Its final lyrics especially ("I can't be sure of girls/I'm not at home with men/I'm ending up with me again") are meant as an empathetic lament, a palliative for a character who's an amalgam of passion, greed, heartlessness and sexual magnetism. Matthew Risch, who jumped from understudy to lead when the original Joey left the show, has the surface right. But his singing and dancing, while efficient, lack that extra dimension that should dominate the evening.
He doesn’t dominate the evening as Stockard Channing does. She skillfully makes Vera into an unflappable, world-weary snob. Martha Plimpton is powerful as Gladys, Jenny Fellner is appealing as Linda and Robert Clohessy finds all sorts of layers as the conflicted club manager. Whatever the production’s inconsistencies, “Pal Joey” is an adult musical. It stands high on the list of influential shows: “Show Boat,” “Oklahoma,” “West Side Story” and should be seen.
Dec. 31, 2008