"Pal Joey"has just bowed at the Prince Music Theater, but not without Christine Andreas first stopping the show with her sensually explosive rendition of "Bewitched". The 1940 Rogers and Hart show has always had a show stopping number, but it has traditionally been the song, "Zip", a perky mock strip tease sung by the minor character of Melba Snyder, a sassy reporter. It was thrilling to hear Ms. Andreas turn the well-known torchy ballad, "Bewitched" into a veritable conflagration of sex. Not that she didn't have any help. Lyricist Lorenz Hart has probably written some of the sexiest lyrics ever for this song -- which is rarely sung in its entirety -- and which builds brilliantly to a smoldering crescendo. But Ms. Andreas not content with simply smoldering bursts into flame. In point of fact it is simply Ms. Andreas's show. She owns the role of Vera Simpson from the tilt of her hat to the tips of her well-heeled toes.
In 1940 the songwriting team of Rogers and Hart decided once again to break new ground by setting the gritty, hard-bitten short stories of the great novelist, John O'Hara, to music. The times that "serious" literature was brought to the stage in a musical comedy format were few and far between. Another maverick idea was basing an entire work on characters that are not perfect. The characters of Joey Evans and Vera Simpson are flawed. Vera is classy, manipulative, sexy and spoiled. Joey is ambitious, self-gratifying and narcissistic. But he also turns out to have some scruples. In a word they are as complex as real human beings and as interesting. The authors also rejected the idea of the ipso facto happy ending.
"Pal Joey" takes place in the hot, Chicago nightclub scene of the late 1930's. Joey Evans, a small time club singer, wanders into town and talks his way into an M.C. gig. He also talks Mike, the proprietor into putting his name and picture up on the marquee -- because he's "going places". Having a way with the girls he works his way through the chorus line. He warns the girls not to be too hard on him in "You Mustn't Kick It Around" On one of the nights he strikes out, he meets Linda English in front of a pet store window, where they sing, "I Could Write a Book". But Linda lives with her sister and so the prospective love birds part. The next night Linda comes to the club to see Joey, just as the very rich and glamorous Vera Simpson walks in with her entourage. Joey is instructed by Mike to keep Mrs. Simpson happy. Linda, feeling ignored, leaves. Vera doesn't fall for Joey's line of jive and calls him on it. Joey insults her and she walks out. The next day she phones him and he tells her she cost him his job and hangs up on her. Now she's completely hooked as she sings, "What is a Man?" She shows up late the next night in the club and takes Joey home. Next we see Vera buying Joey suits in a swank haberdashery, where Linda has just secured employment. Vera convinces her that Joey is her gangland husband and that she better not forget the "rod" pocket in his suits. We also discover Vera's plans for buying Joey his own joint. After Vera sings, "Bewitched" the act ends with Joey, Linda and Vera in a dream ballet where Joey chooses Vera and his new club, Chez Joey over demure Linda. In Act II Linda discovers a blackmail plot. She lets Joey and Vera know that Joey's agent, Ludlow Lowell along with Miss Gladys Bumps are planning to take Miss Simpson for plenty and Joey for whatever he's got. Joey stands up to Lowell and shows that he's not a complete heel. Miss Simpson calls her old friend, the police commissioner who ultimately foils the two grifters. At this point, Vera decides that Joey is getting too expensive for her and cuts him loose. Joey is crushed. He packs his bags but before he leaves town Linda asks him to stay. But Joey knows he can't change his stripes and the show ends with Joey walking out of town, suitcase in hand.
Other musical highlights in this production include Susan Fletcher as Gladys Bumps singing "That Terrific Rainbow" where every color that she sings about is projected onto her white dress transforming her into the rainbow. The young and talented Trent Dawson as Joey Evans does a dance routine reminiscent of the acrobatic hi-jinks of Donald O'Connor in "Do It the Hard Way". And he excels along with Ms. Andreas in "Den of Iniquity", a sexy, sophisticated number that Vera and Joey sing in their little love nest. Kelly McKormick as Linda English along with Mr. Dawson sings a delightful version of I Could Write a Book and the female ensemble should be mentioned for their talents in "A Great Big Town" and the campy "The Flower Garden of My Heart". And Tim Moyer in two contrasting non-singing roles (Mike Spears, the Proprietor and Deputy Commissioner O'Brien) does some great character work.
As always the sets and costumes at the Prince are terrific. The costumes by Mark Mariani were deliciously fun. Most especially was a day suit worn by Ms. Andreas which sported mink sleeves and a matching hat. The sets by Luke Hegel-Cantarella were just suggestive enough of the era without being over burdened with clutter.
With such a terrific score it is unfortunate that this Rogers and Hart show doesn't see the light of day more often. But with two of the leading roles demanding actors who are "triple threats" (Joey and Gladys) it's a tough act to cast. Gene Kelly played Joey in the original Broadway production and that's a tough act to follow.
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