Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Original Book by John O'Hara
New Book by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Joe Mantello
Choreography by Graciela Danielle
Starring Matthew Risch, Stockard Channing & Martha Plimpton
Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54

About two years ago I was invited to write a number of 250-word entries for editor Sean Egan’s coffee table style reference book, since published, The Little Black Book of Music about key points in music history, and one of the subjects assigned me was Pal Joey. I don’t remember exactly how the entry appears in print; Sean reworked some of the pieces—which isn’t a swipe: it was work for hire, I tended towards 300 words, which is a lot in such an instance, Sean’s did what editors do, and it’s a groovy tome (Amazon link here, while we’re on it). But sitting at my computer, I can easily grab the original file, and whatever may appear in the book, the following—which, as I think of it, may be pretty close—is the final draft version of what I sent him:

John O’Hara’s fast-talking Chicago cad, Joey Evans, began life as the star of New Yorker short stories in the form of letters, signed “Pal Joey”. Fittingly, it was a letter from O’Hara to Richard Rodgers (composer) and Lorenz Hart (lyricist), asking if they’d be interested in a Joey musical, that started the ball rolling. O’Hara himself fashioned the seamy-steamy libretto.

                  Broadway history claims the show, starring Gene Kelly, was not originally a success (though that seems relative; a 374 performance run was not unrespectable for 1940, and the “hit” 1952 revival starring Harold Lang—inspired by a studio LP recording of the score likewise featuring Lang—played only 166 more than that). The public, we’re told, simply wasn’t ready for a complex anti-hero to be a musical’s main character. Possibly, but that doesn’t explain why revivals since the 1952 remounting failed even more conspicuously, long after audiences had become more sophisticated.

                  The more likely reason is subtler. The show was conceived before book musicals began to adopt what we now consider true integration of script and score, which involves not only elements of structure but style and tone. Pal Joey never found quite the right balance because the tools for that balance were yet to be refined in later shows. Joey wasn’t just a musical main character ahead of his time, he was an idea ahead of available technique. And in revival, the disparity shows—especially in contrast to the likes of Sweeney Todd.

                  Still, there’s no denying the insinuating power of the score whose standards include the smooth charm of “I Could Write a Book”, the helpless infatuation of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and the brazen striptease suggestiveness of “Zip.”

I include the entry here because even in a new millennium revival, everything I had to say about it is still true. Interestingly, the new book by Richard Greenberg, in being perhaps the most coherent and playable version of the show ever scripted, makes the weaknesses even clearer—not stronger, but clearer—for being so smoothly delivered.

                  Joey doesn’t comprehensively motor the musical as a title character ought. His “quest”—what he’s after—seems vague until somewhere near the middle of the first act, he starts dreaming about a nightclub of his own. He schemes a little bit to get it—romancing a society dame for her dough and influence, all the while keeping an ingenue type on a string—and by the top of Act Two, he has it and starts treating people who work for him shabbily, as well as taking more for granted the women who dote on him. He pursues nothing else, will clearly have no epiphany of self realization, and thus unwittingly “hands over” the role of action to the supporting players. Who variously try to scheme against him, save him and save themselves from him, but all without his active participation—thus, Act Two isn’t about Joey so much as people talking about Joey, subsequently Joey himself gets lost in the shuffle (notwithstanding the end in which he mildly reaps the consequences of his caddish behavior) which makes focus start to sprawl. Nor is there a ticking clock (you’d think the life of a schemer like Joey would have at least a few going at any time) which removes a sense of urgency. As I say, Greenberg has handled his modern dramatist’s rendering with efficient intelligence, so none of this becomes dull, it just seems without a compelling reason to exist. Which, in the life of a musical is almost as crippling. In essence, the show has been made playable…but it hasn’t been solved.

                  The only solution to Pal Joey—if solution there be—is to blow it all the hell up, right to its foundation, and reinvent the trajectory of the story, redefine the things at stake, devise a hero’s (or anti-hero’s) quest that can be kept alive as the primary motor for the show until the end. Keep the characters, settings, ambiance, yes, by all means, but only as elements that await reshaping and repurposing. It can’t just be a character profile—or indeed an amalgam of interacting character profiles, which is precisely what Joey has always been, betraying, in a way, its short story roots. It needs a real plot—not superimposed, but authentically teased out of what exists.

                  As for this rendering of what does exist, let’s move onto its other facilitators.

                  Joe Mantello’s direction is nicely moody, if a bit unanchored in time and space; rather in the style of the Mendes-Marshall Cabaret and the Fosse Pippin, this vision of the 1930s seems to float in a “black box” isolation that is more impressionistic than representative, like a cityscape in a sno-globe, but darker. A and the choreography of Graciela Danielle makes for a nice complement.

                  The acting styles of Mantello’s cast are less cohesive than the universe they’re in, with more emphasis on the individual archetype templates than the blending of them: Smoky-voiced Matthew Risch, the role’s former understudy, who took over the lead in previews, dances expertly, and has the smarmy slickness of a guy who’s been a street operator since youth, but not much of the drop dead charm a guy like Joey needs to get away with his shenanigans for so long. Stockard Channing as his older-woman benefactor, takes the naturalistic route, deliciously unafraid of imperfect pitch so long as the acting is truthful. Martha Plimpton as hard-bitten showgirl-with-solos cutie Gladys Bumps, tears at the role as if she were playing Adelaide in a stock production of Guys & Dolls; her musical pitch is truer, but also way more self-conscious; where Ms. Channing seems to have nothing to prove, Ms. Plimpton, previously known only for roles in straight plays, seems out to prove a great deal, each sustained note seeming to be a personal anthem of newfound musical theatre competence, and you’re aware of the declaration even as you admire the victory. Jenny Fellner as the naive shop girl Joey keeps on a string is sweet, solid and intelligent—pretty much what she has to be. And Robert Clohessy, in the non-singing role of Mike, a club manager, is right out of a noir movie. Finally, Daniel Marcus turns the utterly disposable role of a saccharine tenor of the operetta school into the evening’s niftiest cameo, crooning the novelty ballad, “In the Flower Garden of My Heart.”

                  Paul Gemignani batons an unusually full orchestra for a Roundabout revival, which allows the score its deservedly rich new orchestrations by Don Sebesky. None of which saves the show, of course; but at last and at least, keeps it from becoming dull during the second act loss of focus.

                 Bottom line: Unless the reimagining is not just coherent, but textbook in its tracking of an active main character, per the above, Pal Joey will never work.


                  But at least this version might be viewed as the penultimate step along that path, providing clues and inspiration, should another creative team be as driven as Joey to prove he’s not just another loser wannabe…

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