Reviewed by Will Stackman
Last season the Stoneham Theatre began a somewhat up and down 5th season with a revival of "Tommy" featuring nascent pop star, Jake Simpson. This year they're opening with Rodgers and Hart's landmark classic, "Pal Joey.", the show that launched Gene Kelly. For the title role they've tapped versatile Brad Bass, who previously appeared there in "Tommy" and their N.E. Premiere of Picardi's "Sweepers". They've also brought back one of the area's leading ladies, IRNE winner Leigh Barrett, to play Vera, a role written for Hart's long time friend, Vivienne Segal. Barrett was the major reason to see their production of "John and Jen" last winter. For the ingenue, Linda, Robyn Elizabeth Lee who also appeared in "Sweepers" and "Tommy" is back. Rounding out core musical performers is Ceit McCaleb, first seen at Stoneham two years ago as a newlywed in "The Girl in the Frame". She plays Gladys, the tough dame who heads the chorus, She's joined by Scott Marshall as the shady theatrical agent Ludlow, He was seen in "Tommy" and as Jacob Marley last year in "A Christmas Carol". Bass, Lee, and McCaleb were also in that show as this theatre continues to establish its pool of talent.
The major newcomer to their stage is Speakeasy stalwart, Kerry Dowling, singing up a storm as role of Melba, the Chicago Herald newshen, whose novelty number, "Zip", about Gypsy Rose Lee made a star of Elaine Stritch in the 1952 revival of "Pal Joey." Mike the club owner also gets to sing in this production. Dale Place, Stoneham's favorite Scrooge, joins young Andrew Barbato, a member of Stoneham's Youth Ensemble playing the kid who sweeps out the joint, in opening the second act parodying the intro to "The Flower Garden of My Heart", the show's mocking tribute to Ziegfeld. Many of the songs in "Pal Joey", even some that have become standards, like "I Could Write a Book", have an additional ironic touch as Hart and O'Hara ring changes on musical comedy motives. This production also gives Gladys and Ludlow both their songs, "Plant You Now..." and "Doing It the Hard Way". McCaleb once again demonstrates her musical comedy credentials in the part that brought June Havoc--yes, Baby June--back out of the chorus. Mutil-talented Marshall, who's also a fight director, adds a real touch of malice to his con man. These two aren't simply the comic crooks normally found in musical theatre. Their being run out of town by Chicago's Police Commissioner, one of Vera's other boyfriends, is a real bum's rush. Mr. O'Brien, who gets to sing a few lines in Act One as he's emerging from Vera's bedroom, unidentified at the time, is played by Brendan McNab who just finished a Master's at BosCon. and just appeared at the Gloucester Stage Company in "A Grand Night for Singing."
The show's choreographer, recent BosCon grad Michelle Petrucci is also a hardworking member of the five girl chorus line. She dances the sweet young thing with Joey in the dream ballet which ends the first act. McCaleb, who's also a choreographer, dances opposite her as the knowing woman while the two principles watch from either side. The other chorines, Christine Pardilla Reeds, who was seen a couple of seasons ago in "Little Shop...", Allison Russell and Rocio Valles, also high school students in the Youth Ensemble, form a suitably mismatched night club line, all dancing their hearts out in for lousy pay and long hours in Chicago.
For the set of this chamber style show, with the four piece jazz ensemble led by music director, IRNE winner Jose Delgado at a real piano on the bandstand upstage, Stoneham's once again turned to Christine Tedesco, who was nominated for an IRNE for her expressive set for Stoneham's "The Violet Hour." She also did the set for the IRNE winning production of "A Little Night Music" at the Lyric. With step units leading nowhere as side stages, a raised center platform to show off the chorines' energy and Joey's fancy footwork --which Bass no doubt honed on a national tour of"The Will Rogers' Follies"-- and a narrow sidewalk at the edge of the stage, the set has a simple elegance. The ensemble deals with rearranging the furniture as needed without slowing the show, including producing Vera's chaise lounge from under the stage right steps. The co-directors, Weylin Symes, Stoneham's Aristic Director and Caitlin Lowans, the company's Director of Education, get additional solid support from Toni Bratton Elliot's rather realistic costuming, including tacky night club outfits for the girls, increasingly better tailoring for Joey, and subtle elegance for Vera. Barrett gets to show the sophistication she displayed at the end of Overture's concert performance of "Follies" two seasons ago while still radiating a maternal air. She's playing Mother in "Ragtime" at the New Rep later in the season. Mark Lanks lighting defines each scene crisply. Stoneham once again steps forth as real contender as a presenter of small scale music theatre, thanks in part to returning performers who've learned how to play this renovated neighborhood movie theatre. No other major in-house musical efforts have been scheduled this season, but we can always hope.