Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 18, 2008
Pal Joey Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Lorenz Hart. New book by Richard Greenberg. Based on the original book by John O’Hara. Directed by Joe Mantello. Choreography by Graciela Daniele. Musical Direction by Paul Gemignani. Orchestrations by Don Sebesky. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Sound design by Tony Meola. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Stockard Channing, Matthew Risch, Martha Plimpton, with Robert Clohessy, Jenny Fellner, Daniel Marcus, Steven Skybell, Timothy J. Alex, Brian Barry, Kurt Froman, Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines, Lisa Gajda, Anthony Holds, Nadine Isenegger, Mark Morettini, Kathryn Mowat, Murphy Abbey O’Brien, Nicole Orth-Pallavicini, Hayley Podschun, Krista Saab, Eric Sciotto.
If, like me, you tend to bristle when a playwright weaves new dialogue around an old show’s songs - usually several decades after the original writers’ deaths - you've had just cause. The sad exemplar of this phenomenon is undoubtedly the 2002 Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song, about which new librettist David Henry Hwang crowed he “tried to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he were Asian-American,” but which was more dramatically insulting than inspiring and not a financial success.
Greenberg’s work is not that. It’s merely an updating - and a fairly gentle one - of O’Hara’s, first seen on Broadway in 1940 and (in his own revision) in 1952. In tracking singer-dancer Joe Evans as he sleeps his way to the middle of the 1930s Chicago club scene with Vera Simpson, the rich but emotionally abandoned wife of a milk magnate, Greenberg has kept much of O’Hara’s scene structure, dialogue, and jokes. This is less a full-blown rewrite than a mild reconsideration, in no way a curb-kicking of the original.
This treatment is impressively respectful of O’Hara, composer Richard Rodgers, and lyricist Lorenz Hart, but comes with a downside: O’Hara’s book, written when dialogue closely integrating with songs was still a new-wave concept, wasn’t so hot to begin with. Greenberg may have deleted a character here, reenvisioned another one there, and changed other small things, but they don’t add up to an appreciably different experience. His biggest, shakiest alteration is playing up Joey’s sincerity, softening the edges of what O’Hara saw as a sharp-edged, unforgiving story. But overall, Greenberg has done little damage.
Rather than exploring the dangers and complexities of Joey and Vera’s pairing against the musty glitter of Chicago nightlife, they’ve tried to change Pal Joey into a makeshift Cabaret by swathing it in darkness, squalor, and self-promoting grit. Pask’s set frames things with an El track and a metal spiral staircase he might well have borrowed from his work in Roundabout’s 2003 revival of Nine, each of which evokes only a blandly ugly industrial feel. Gallo seems most interested in obscuring the action; even the dance numbers that sometimes shamble out of the club scenes are illuminated as if by footlights in a haunted house. Drawing his inspiration from both, Mantello paces the action as though it’s stumbling through the bad part of town at 3:00 AM.
Against this oppressive backdrop, Greenberg and O’Hara’s story about those who want to attain success - or reattain youth - by any means necessary never gains the traction it needs to escape from its own dudgeon. So incompatible with these surroundings is the greyly elegant Vera of Stockard Channing that not only do you never doubt the eventual outcome of her trysts with Joey, your sympathies shift to Joey’s down-and-headed-out bare-it-all colleague Gladys Bumps (Martha Plimpton, in a solid Broadway musical debut).
This is more problematic still, since Greenberg has buffed up the character of Joey’s same-age mouse target, Linda English (Jenny Fellner), to shape a truer romantic triangle at the show’s center. But Fellner, while pretty of face and voice, has been staged like one of the mannequins in the men’s clothing shop in which she works and made a vivid nonentity. Mantello allows no legitimate feeling, either factual or fabricated, to hold the spotlight, which turns what should be a caustic but appealing show into a brooding hissy fit.
This production’s Joey does not help. This production made headlines in previews when a hurt foot forced Tony winner Christian Hoff to depart the title role, which was then filled by his understudy, Matthew Risch. A pointedly smoky singer and an able dancer, Risch plows through the role with supreme confidence. But he’s utterly lacking in charm, and never assumes the control over either the stage or Vera that Joey must to seem like something more than a “half-pint imitation.” Perhaps, if Mantello and Daniele would let him cut loose, we’d see that spark. As it is, we never do.
Channing, however, is shattering as the brandy-drenched Vera, who sees in Joey a second chance for herself; though her voice has somewhat deteriorated, she brings an affecting humanity to songs like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “What Is a Man?”, and “In Our Little Den of Iniquity.” If Plimpton occasionally sings flat, her voice is gutsy, and she almost succeeds at making the dumb-broad Gladys a real person. Fellner displays lovely meekness as Linda that should be allowed to develop, and Robert Clohessy brings some reliably reluctant sleaze to his role as Joey’s personal and professional foil.
Unfortunately, their characters all read as dazed and indifferent, victims of the souring Depression and of circumstances that eclipse their abilities to understand them. The intended message - one for our times, one assumes - is that when money goes south people will do everything possible to not travel right along with it. But what this Pal Joey communicates is that any new libretto, however efficient it might be, will be spinning in place without a proper sense of direction.