Timothy J. Alex, Brian Barry, Stockard Channing, Robert Clohessy, Jenny Fellner, Kurt Froman, Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines, Lisa Gajda, Anthony Holds, Nadine Isenegger, Daniel Marcus, Mark Morettini, Kathryn Mowat Murphy, Abbey O’Brien, Nicole Orth-Pallavicini, Martha Plimpton, Hayley Podschun, Matthew Risch, Krista Saab, Eric Sciotto, Steven Skybell
Roundabout Theatre Companys decision to revive the Rodger and Harts classic Pal Joey is a curious one.
The original 1940 production, directed by George Abbott and starring Gene Kelly, was helmed by luminaries and hailed as seminal, becoming the longest-running Rodger and Harts show at that time.
History has judged it gently: Ethan Mordden, author of Beautiful Mornin’: The Broadway Musical in the 1940s, wrote that Pal Joey, …is a breakthrough in character writing…The two leadsare extremely well-drawn…Pal Joey is tough…its script true to its characters…the show finds Rodgers and Hart at their best.”
Set on the mean streets of 1930s Chicago, Pal Joey follows the rise and predictable fall of Joey Evans (played here by Matthew Risch), a slick, second-rate nightclub dancer and MC who dreams of owning his own lavishly imagined nightclub.
Handsome, charming and manipulative, Joey cuts a classic figure the could-be good-guy dogged by the demons of selfish ambition. Rodgers said of his own creation, Joey was not disreputable because he was mean, but because he had too much imagination to behave himself, and because he was a little weak. The same is true of this revival.
The set, expertly executed by two-time Tony Award-winner Scott Pask, is a noir colossus of imagination too grand for the characters to inhabit. Joey is too by-the-numbers in Rischs hands predictable though not boring, unimaginative but not insipid. Risch treats the duality of Joeys conflicted conscience too lightly: when Joey is selfish, he seems self-consciously selfish; when he is warm, he seems lukewarm. Joey feels conflicted not so much by conscience as by motivation, as though Risch has not settled on his own interpretation. As a result, Joey feels doubly insincere.
Joey takes two lovers, who round out the cast, Linda English (played by a well-cast Jenny Fellner) and Vera Simpson (spiritedly yet too passively embodied by Stockard Channing). Linda is a nave but self-assured small-town girl who recently moved to the city. Fellner gives dimension to what could easily be a flat character by force of sheer talent: we believe her every step of the way. Fellner succeeds where Risch fails: when Linda is supposed to be strong, Fellner is; when she is supposed to be vulnerable, Fellner lets down her guard.
Stockard Channing has the aura of talent about her but never fully delivers on the promise of her presence. An admittedly excellent actress, Channing has the odds stacked against her in this production. She plays Juliet to an unconvincing Romeo, and a silly Juliet at that a doomed, doting matron to a wholly undeserving (and unconvincing) Joey. Were Rischs Joey a slyer, more subtle creature, then Channings self-effacing devotion to him would be more sympathetic. In addition, her singing abilities, while not inconsiderable, are not worth the decidedly considerable price of admission. By contrast, Tony Award-nominee Martha Plimpton brings down the house as Gladys Bumps, a life-long nightclub singer and dancer. The role is tertiary but her voice is masterful confident and sexy.
Risch is at his best when singing, as is the show itself. Ultimately, this is a show about songs, having given birth to the standards I Could Write a Book and Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered. Joey may have been an antihero for the times, but he seems too tame today, not nearly disturbed enough to deserve the distinction. The music, however, has endured the test of time, and so, the show has become a mere frame to showcase the songs.