Pal Joey

  • Review by:
    Polly Wittenberg.


    A Review by Polly Wittenberg.

    The main storyline on the Roundabout�s revival of the vintage Rodgers and Hart musical �Pal Joey� is the accession of the unknown understudy, Matthew Risch, to above-the-title stardom (next to Stockard Channing) after Christian Hoff (late of �Jersey Boys�) injured his foot. Nice story � but no guarantee of a showbiz breakthrough. Despite some smooth moves, Mr. Risch is yet not up to the part of Joey Evans�the quintessentially �nasty but charming� rake.

    Actually, the whole production �directed by Joe Mantello and choreographed by Graciela Daniele� is a bit off. The set by Scott Pask is complicated but the dance area feels uncomfortably constricted for the sparkling hoofing that is one of the best things about the show. The lighting by Paul Gallo is spectacular and the dancers� costumes by William Ivey Long are wild and witty. But the getups for the female stars �Ms. Channing, Martha Plimpton and Jenny Fellner� are dull, too intricate or just plain ugly. Which brings me to the sound �always a problem at Studio 54� that is completely out of whack with many of Hart�s brilliant lyrics barely audible over the music provided by Paul Gemignani�s snappy band.

    As to the performances, Mr. Risch can really dance, but his voice is weak and his chemistry with all three of the female leads is non-existent. Ms. Channing as Joey�s �benefactor� Vera Simpson is appropriately haughty and grand and has a deep warm voice. But it is not a strong voice and she is not much of a dancer. Ms. Plimpton as Joey�s irritating ex Gladys Bumps is thoroughly delightful and really struts her stuff, especially in her big number �Zip�, and she can articulate the lyrics too.

    �Pal Joey� is home to a couple of the greatest standards that Rodgers and Hart ever wrote��Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered� and �I Could Write a Book��but the story, in a new version by Richard Greenberg, set in the netherworld of 30's Chicago is territory that is much better covered in the Kander and Ebb musical of that city�s name which is still running on 49th Street.

    Lots of effort has been expended by the Roundabout on the revival on 54th Street � but not much magic there.

    Polly Wittenberg


    Let's all be thankful for William Ivey Long. His magnificent 1930's costumes for "Pal Joey" make this otherwise lifeless musical, a visual treat. The show ran for a year when it first opened in 1940, but its three subsequent revivals lasted barely two months. Some show people, however, never learn a lesson. "Pal Joey" has been revived yet again when it should have been classified "DNR."

    Using an amalgam of John O'Hara's short stories on which the original show was based, playwright Richard Greenberg has updated the script a bit, but it still won't pull you in. The story takes place in Chicago's South Side, and its colorful history that originates from the days of Al Capone and bad, bad Leroy Brown, is somewhat recaptured in this new production.

    Set in a smoky cabaret filled with the usual suspects, song-and-dance man Joey Evans has managed to sweet-talk club-owner, Mike, into letting him become the headliner. A man with no scruples, who'll do whatever it takes to get what he wants -- his own club, for one thing -- Joey has also managed to talk himself into the pants of two women who deserve better.

    Now, this is quite a feat, and a man would have to have a lot going for him to accomplish this even though he's met the women when at their most vulnerable. Linda is the na�ve girl-next-door who, though she had just met him at a coffee shop, has fallen for his every line. Vera, on the other hand, at the short end of womanly virtues, is a wealthy socialite of a certain age who finds alcohol more comforting than her absent husband.

    For a man to pull off such a romantic coup, he would have to be extraordinary. Charismatic, sexy, mysterious, irresistible. He'd have to be Svengali. Or Brad Pitt. But Matthew Risch, who has never had a leading-man role on Broadway, doesn't even approximate such dreaminess. Why the (bleep) was this greenhorn chosen for a role that required him to share the spotlight with two bona fide stars, Stockard Channing and Martha Plimpton?

    Martha Plimpton, now there's a talent. We've seen her dramatic prowess in "Coast of Utopia" and "Cymbeline," but it turns out she can also sing. Who knew? Playing Gladys Bumps as if she understudied Gypsy Rose Lee in a prior incarnation, Plimpton comes out in black lacy underwear, belting, bumping and grinding like a musical veteran.

    As good as Gladys is at her job, the aging showgirl gets fired anyway from the South Side Club when Joey buys Mike out -- thanks to Vera's open checkbook -- and revamps the dive into Chez Joey, giving it cachet with top hat and tails. Down on her luck and out of money, Gladys concocts a blackmail scheme as revenge and involves Vera. And Joey deservedly gets his.

    Four potentially interesting characters in this musical, yet we don�t really care about any of them. Not even innocent Linda from Milwaukee, played by relative newcomer Jenny Fellner. She has a voice like an angel, but her Linda is unbearably clueless, going back for more each time Joey betrays her. Linda is a character that would annoy any modern woman.

    Channing is still gorgeous, but her vocal chops are not what they used to be. In a torchy rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," sung next to a sleeping Joey, we're left cold, wondering why she doesn't use her money to get a life.

    In addition to that wonderful classic song, "I Could Write a Book" and "Zip" are the only other ditties that'll make you wish for the good old days of the standards, and if you've seen the 1953 movie, you're probably wondering what happened to "There's a Small Hotel" and Frank Sinatra's definitive version of "The Lady Is a Tramp." Those songs, it turns out, were never written for the show, just added to the memorable film, which you should rent instead of spending money on this failed musical.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus



    What the press had to say.....

    "How did a racy little ditty about girl-chasing turn into a dirge? In Joe Mantello�s joyless revival." & "Watching the cast go through its motions is like watching a �Marat/Sade� in which the asylum inmates have been pumped full of Thorazine." & "Joey... has to be the engine of the show, and that�s a challenge beyond Mr. Risch."
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "Risch, who's been in "Legally Blonde" and "Chicago" but has never had a lead role, gets an A for effort. He's a capable singer and deft dancer and gives just the kind of performance you'd expect - solid and professional. Period." & "Casting a boyish near-beginner as a die-hard heel is but one issue in Joe Mantello's low-impact staging."
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "While he's (Risch) a strong dancer and a fair singer, he doesn't yet have the acting chops and, more important, the charisma to make his Joey as much of a charmer as he is a heel." & ""Pal Joey" is seriously undercut by the gaping hole at its center."
    Frank Scheck
    New York Post

    "Snazzily revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company, pumps much-needed fresh blood into a Broadway grown anemic. A spate of pre-opening drama -- when the gifted understudy, Matthew Risch, was promoted to protagonist -- appears to have done no harm." & "Risch has the properly improper gigolo looks and persona of Joey, singing, dancing and acting with precarious insouciance spelled by the called-for defensive arrogance."
    John Simon
    Bloomberg

    "The real revelation, though, is Martha Plimpton's Gladys. Having acted in a variety of acclaimed dramas, Plimpton reveals a natural flair for musical comedy; Zip, her mock-striptease number, is the closest thing this production has to a showstopper. As for Risch, who replaced original lead Christian Hoff (after Hoff sustained a foot injury in late November), he has no shortage of talent or charisma, but at 27 seems a little green for Joey."
    Elysa Gardner
    USA Today

    "Seems more like grown-ups playing dress-up than gritty and cynically delicious pulp fiction." & "There is no nice way of saying this. Matthew Risch, the understudy who stepped into the starring role when Christian Hoff reportedly was injured, is a slick and stylish hoofer, and a competent singer. But he doesn't have the wattage to make us care about Joey Evans."
    Linda Winner
    NewsDay

    "Although it can't quite make up its mind what it wants to be and is too remote to be engaging, still manages to find the brash undertones of a fabled, always troubled creation." & "Matthew Risch, who as everyone knows by now jumped from understudy to lead, has the surface right. But his singing and dancing, while efficient, lack that extra dimension that should dominate the evening."
    David A. Rosenberg
    Back Stage

    "If Joey seduced us � we might develop an emotional interest in what happens. Risch,..., lacks that kind of charisma. While a capable dancer and singer, he doesn't make Joey at all appealing." & "Playwright Richard Greenberg has adapted John O'Hara's original book, removing some of the clutter and complications. But what's left seems awfully slight, not so much streamlined as cut to the bone. Among theater people, "Pal Joey" has always been regarded as a significant show. On the evidence of this production, it's more impressive in legend than in reality."
    Robert Feldberg
    The Record

    "Nearly 70 years after an unrepentant cad named Joey Evans first graced a Broadway stage in "Pal Joey," he's back, with his ambition and charm intact." & "Greenberg's rewrite is crisp and to the point. There is a hard-boiled briskness to his work, a film-noir sensibility in its punchy dialogue that ricochets lickety-split across the stage." "
    Michael Kuchwara
    Associated Press

    "What makes the Roundabout revival of their 1940 show so compelling is Richard Greenberg�s trenchant adaptation of the original book by John O�Hara" & "Risch is neither a top-drawer singer nor dancer, he�s doing creditable work as louche lounge lizard Joey Evans. He has the right thuggish good looks, sleazy charisma and self-assured moves to play the unscrupulous gigolo."
    David Rooney
    Variety