by Richard Seff
One of the more quoted critical quotes of the last century is Brooks Atkinson’s conclusion to his review of the original production the Rogers-Hart-O’Hara collaboration Pal Joey in 1940. The terminal sentence was: “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” Well, no, you can’t, but that’s just the point of the startling and effective revival brought to us by Roundabout at Studio 54. The authors never intended a “sweet water” musical. But in 1940 that was all that was allowed. Yes, a Carousel was on the horizon, but Billy Bigelow had to die and get redeemed after death. The Music Man and How to Succeed in Business were still a decade away, but their central characters, both con men (charming of course), would see the light, or be so charming that no one minded his stepping on everyone in his race to the top.
The authors of Pal Joey therefore were way ahead of their times. Their central character, Joey Evans, based on the creation of John O’Hara in a series of New Yorker short stories, is reprehensible and remains so until, and after the final curtain. And though in many ways he resembles Billy Flynn, the main man in Chicago, he’s not satirized or glamourized or lionized as Flynn is. He is the rotter that he is, and we’re stuck with him. That did not please a lot of people in 1940 and he only got to stick around for 374 performances. Twelve years later, in revival with Harold Lang and again Vivienne Segal, he was more welcome – 540 performances. But he was still tough to sell. It has taken this long for him to be put onstage without the pretty sets, costumes and softly sweetened performances.
Joey is blessed with nimble feet which allow him to dance flashily, with a singing voice that allows him to warble along and with a face and form that we now call “hot.” He’s kind of second rate in all departments, but he is a contender. Uneducated, except with street smarts, unambitious but hungry for fame and money if they can be attained easily, perfectly willing to use his natural attributes to “get there” as quickly as possible. In his case, no big dreams – all he really wants is a sassy club named after him – the “Chez Joey” (“it’s French!”)
And in O’Hara’s story, as adapted and revamped by Richard Greenberg, Joey is surrounded by many as reprehensible as he. Except for the little “mouse” he picks up at a coffee shop (in Greenberg’s version; in O’Hara’s they met looking in the window of a pet shop), the cast of characters in his life include Mrs. Vera Simpson, a tarnished lady with a very wealthy and mostly absent husband, Gladys Bumps, an over-the-hill chorine whose big dream is to get herself a solo number, an MC called Mike in the first dive in which he finds himself a job, who has a secret that will eventually put him in a compromising position. There are others – an overweight tenor called Ludlow Lowell with a big voice but a small future, the club’s drummer who is Mike’s paramour but who clearly pines for Joey, and other assorted guttersnipes and ne’er do wells. Even in the original, which was tamer, redemption did not rear its head, and Joey came to a bad end after having his five minutes in the sun. He didn’t die or even become ill (that will occur sooner than it should, but later) but he was back on the streets seeing if his hustle has lost its appeal in the year or so he’s been on Mrs. Simpson’s leash. The plot remains the same, but the original, staged by George Abbott and Robert Alton, remained true to the tradition of musical comedy in its attitudes, dialogue and staging. For example, the love song “I Could Write A Book” was sung romantically, with lush orchestration. The incredibly dark lyrics of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” were sung by the delightful Vivienne Segal in the manner of a wise and sophisticated Persian Room at the Plaza cabaret singer. “Flower Garden of my Heart” was sung by a curvy June Havoc much as Vivian Blaine sang “A Bushel and a Peck” in the same setting (a seedy nightclub) 10 years later in Guys and Dolls..
But not this time out. “Bewitched” is done by the fine actress Stockard Channing as a woman who’s just been thoroughly satisfied in bed by a lower class lover, now sexily asleep under satin sheets in her fancy bedroom. Her hair is undone, she’s slightly wild with post-coital joy, and she takes every one of Larry Hart’s masterful lyrics and delivers them to us with more power than I ever realized they contained. “Flower Garden” is sung by the incredible Martha Plimpton as though she’d been around the block many many times, and she’s sick of pretending that roses and daffodils and lilacs and roses are enough to get her heart pounding. It’s twice as funny by being twice as tough. And now we come to Master Matthew Risch, the understudy who went on stage for the ailing star Christian Hoff and came off stage – an understudy. At least that’s what the rumors were, and most of the press confirmed it. So I expected a nice looking lad with a modest talent to manage to keep the curtain up, but nothing more. Now, I don’t know. Joey is a complex role to learn and do justice to in the few days that young Risch had to put him together when Mr. Hoff broke his foot and had to leave the cast suddenly. Perhaps by the time the critics came, Risch just wasn’t ready to do more than routine work. But by the time I got there, a week or so later, I found him really quite marvelous. The most noticeable quality to me was “presence”. From his first moment, alone, in film noir lighting, he held the stage. There is a decidedly urban quality to his speech and his natural movement, which made his grace as a dancer even more startling – very reminiscent to me of the work James Cagney did in Yankee Doodle Dandy. In book scenes with Jenny Fellner, the ingénue, and Stockard Channing, his older mistress, he gave as good as he got, and opposite Ms. Channing, vastly more experienced, that’s meant as a mighty compliment.
One must mention Joe Mantello, who directed the show. From the opening moment, he let us know we were not in the world of musical comedy, but in the real Chicago of the thirties; dark, scary, a place where it always seemed to be night. The set included a section of the elevated rail system of the Loop, and on the other side of the stage, a spiral staircase that indicated “glamour”, seedy as it was. And the show remained consistently ‘film noir’ for the entire evening – and I can’t remember basic material more suited to this sort of treatment.
I don’t ordinarily like musicals like this, but I admired and was ultimately very moved by this one. It’s a great score, it was always a fascinating character study of a story, and with Richard Greenberg’s brittle and sound dialogue combined with Joe Mantello’s experienced hand at staging, I found, to my surprise, it was an “edge of the seat” evening for me, and I’m still tingling from it. I could easily see it again, and I’m certain I’d find even more rewards in it. Pal Joey has always been a mini-masterwork, and this time out it’s been fully realized. For me it now joins Chicago and Cabaret on a short list of older works that have been excitingly restored by a new director, his creative team, and his fresh ideas about casting roles that in musical theatre are right up there with Hamlet and the Tyrones and Hedda Gabler and Medea.
Pal Joey continues at Studio 54, 254 W 54th St, NYC through March 1. Tickets: $36 – $136. To order, click here.
I realize this is a shorter column than usual, but I wanted to let you know all about my new pal Joey as early as possible, as his New York run has just been extended by two weeks, and he’ll now be sticking around our Studio 54 until March 1st. I know a dozen New Yorkers who are traveling to D.C. to see Arthur Laurents’ new staging of West Side Story at the National. Why don’t you all come on up and visit Pal Joey and have yourselves a real treat, as sort of a cultural exchange program? Just a thought.