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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Actually, Plimpton doesn't have all that much stage time so her Gladys isn't really reason enough for theater goers to shell out the over a hundred dollars it takes to buy a top ticket, especially in these belt-tightning days. Fortunately, there are plenty of other reasons to see and enjoy this latest musical incarnation of John O'Hara's epistolary stories about an ambitious hustler on the fringes of show business. For starters, Stockard Channing is deliciously bitchy but also "bewitched, bothered and bewildered" as the glamorous older woman, Vera Simpson, who uses her wealthy husband's fortune to bankroll Joey's dream of owning his own nightclub in order to keep him in her bed. With the help of music director Paul Geminani, she compensates for a lack of vocal power with a terrifically torchy rendition of the show's best known song and its musical leitmotif.
While Pal Joey has always been admired more for its score than its book, playwright Richard Greenberg has done a splendid job of making the libretto (originally by O'Hara and based on just two of some dozen Pal Joey stories) not just a hook on which to hang songs like "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "I Could Write a Book" but bringing it into the more integrated post-Oklahoma musical era it preceded.
Without sanitizing Joey as the movie starring Frank Sinatra did, Greenberg has made it easier to see how the crude, cocky heel at the show's center is somehow both attractive and repellent, as innocent as he is exploitative—doomed to be on the outside looking in and yet a resilient optimist. Only someone who saw the 1940 original or the even more successful 1952 revival, will be able to see just how much O'Hara and Greenberg overlap.
To me, Greenberg's way with zing-y dialogue is clearly evident, especially in the exchanges between Joey and Vera when they first meet at the sleazy club where Joey is the singing and dancing MC, during the getting to know you follow up when he arrives unannounced at her apartment (e.g.: When Vera, holding on to her last shred of pride answer's Joey's "May I come home with you tonight?" with "Well, since you said, 'May I'. . . My car is waiting right outside.") Greenberg's wit also shines through during the blackmail transaction between Vera and the Chez Joey manager Mike (Responding to Mike's telling her that the transaction has nothing to do with her and that she seems too nice and fine a lady to be with Joey, she quips "Mike, you seem to be trying to save my soul and take my money at the same time."). He's also smartly moved her signature "Bewitched. . ." number into the bedroom as a musical monologue,
As I've already indicated, Plimpton and Channing take full advantage of the ramped up satire in Mr. Greenberg's script. What about Matthew Risch, the 27-year-old Broadway newcomer who made that fabled leap from understudy to star when the show lost its intended star, Christian Hoff? His being a dozen years younger than Hoch actually intensifies the gigolo aspects of the Vera-Joey relationship. It's certainly not his fault that he has to, at least initially, contend with images of more stellar past and possible better known current Joeys (even without seeing Gene Kelly who created the role, it took me a few minutes to discard images of Kelly or Harry Connick). That said, Rish is certainly tall, dark and handsome and to quote from Joey in one of the stories that appeared in the New Yorker ("Joey and the Calcutta Club") he's does well "making with the throat" and is an agile dancer. If his star billing still hasn't translated into super star sizzle, his portrait of Joey falls a bit short of Greenberg's largely successful effort to capture the complexities that, according to O'Hara's biographer Matthew Bruccoli, Joey shared with the upwardly mobile instincts of the more serious O'Hara novels' characters—an opinion with which I tend to agree. Still, doing well in two and a half out of the role's three challenges isn't at all bad.
Jenny Fellner brings a sweet voice and a natural performance to the show's ingenue Linda English. While much of Joey's success in the original Pal Joey stories depended on the women he seduced not being smart enough to look through his wise guy come-ons, this Linda is far from dumb, just young and vulnerable enough to let her heart rule her head. Robert Clohessy 's Mike is, like Joey, more avaricious than vile, which applies to his and Gladys Bump's maneuver to have Joey once more head to another city.
High on the list of reasons this Pal Joey is worth seeing is that it's a big, handsome musical that benefits from director Joe Mantello's ability to introduce a Sondheim flavor to to a musical from a by-gone era. The show is buoyed by Graciela Daniele's watchable and varied choreography which includes a stylish Fosse-like number and a scrumptious extravaganza in which Joey envisions himself as the star and maestro of a lavish Ziegfeld style club. Not to be overlooked is Scott Pask's set with its sky-high circular staircase and William Ivey Long's gorgeous, characterizing costumes. The addition of "I'm Talking to My Pal", which was left out of the premiere production, establishes the link to the New Yorker stories which were all written by Joey to his pal Ted.
Musicals have come a long way since the anti-heroic Joey shocked Brooks Atkinson the chief The New York Times enough to prompt him to famously ask "Can you draw sweet water from a foul well"? Contemporary audiences are accustomed to characters whose morals wouldn't pass muster with Atkinson and many 1940s audiences. Today Joey's salty vernacular is prim compared to what's said and sung on many stages. And, of course, his schemes pale compared to some of the doings of the present day schemers who make this wittily updated sixty-year-old musical feel as timely as tomorrow's headlines.