The delayed opening of this long-awaited revival of the 1940 Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical was unavoidable. It was, however, almost ironically beset with the same troubles that affected the 1976 Broadway revival. Just a few weeks ago during previews understudy Matthew Risch replaced the injured Christian Hoff as Joey. In the 1976 revival Edward Villella was replaced during previews by Christopher Chadwick in the obviously precarious title role.
There is a lot to praise and be thankful for in this smartly refreshed and snappily staged production under the direction of Joe Mantello. With respectful commendation due to Hart’s irresistibly insinuating lyrics, a constant source of dazzle, it is the new sturdier book by Richard Greenberg (based on the original book by John O’Hara) that gives the show its primary strength and substance.
Considering the age of the musical and the tendency in its time for musical numbers to stand noticeably apart from the book portion, Greenberg has done a terrific job in masking and integrating that structure. He has emphasized the most brittle and caustic aspects of the story while grounding the musical’s not-too-likeable characters in their own sociopathic reality. The book has always been noted for being conspicuously sour. That hasn’t changed and that’s good. And as for Joey, his disingenuous nature and inflated ego haven’t been compromised at all. That’s even better.
The decision to go with Risch was a wise one. Good-looking and a splendid dancer, he gives every indication that his already convincing performance will continue to grow as he further combines Joey’s attractiveness with his loathsomeness into one solid and despicably irresistible personality. That Joey is a self-serving, sleazy heel, a sexual predator, a go-getter, and a born loser all rolled into one doesn’t stop either the men or the women he connects with from being intrigued and even seduced by him. Although he has been kicked out of any number of towns before we meet him, Joey seems to have no trouble and in short order manipulating his way to success as a Chicago nightclub owner.
Risch rises to the occasion early on with a winning and smoothly executed dance prologue. His dancing is tops but it almost doesn’t matter when Martha Plimpton, as the brassy nightclub entertainer Gladys Bumps and the “girls” take over in their sassy routines. The choreography throughout by Graciela Daniele is as invigorating as it is wittily conjured. Did anyone ever expect to see Plimpton as a curvaceous singing floozy? And who can say that this astonishing actress doesn’t invest as much of herself in the classic strip “Zip” than she did traipsing about old Russia in “The Coast of Utopia?”
What a delight Risch, Plimpton, and the “girls” are in that treasure trove of sassy R & H numbers: “You Mustn’t Kick It Around,” “Happy Little Hunting Song,” “That Terrific Rainbow,” and “Plant You Now, Dig You Later.” As one of the “girls” in that deliriously tacky nightclub number “The Flower Garden of My Heart,” Plimpton also gets to wear one of the brilliantly outrageous costumes that have been designed by that genius William Ivey Long.
Long, whose costume designs just keep getting better and better with every show, puts his most giddy stitching to work for the production numbers. But he puts his most stunning creations on Stockard Channing, who plays Vera Simpson, the married wealthy older woman who bankrolls Joey in return for his sexual favors. Stockard, who may not be noted for her musical theater performances (let’s forget the film “Grease”) gets to the heart of her character’s bitter loneliness. A highlight, and an inspired one at that, is Channing smoking and singing (quite admirably) the show’s most famous song “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” in the bedroom while Joey sleeps.
How great is it that Linda (Jenny Fellner), the young woman who Joey seduces and plays for a fool is no fool in this version. Fellner has a lovely voice, certainly the best of the leading players, and has her finest musical moment in the duet with Joey, “I Could Write a Book.” Supporting performances are all solid and complete this gritty if not pretty picture of O’Hara’s morally corrupt world. Excellent set designer Scott Pask goes for darkness and glitter while the lighting by designer Paul Gallo goes from grim to gorgeous. It’s all this duality that actually not only defines “Joey” but also empowers this terrific musical.
A concert version in 1995 produced by the City Center Encore Series starred the versatile Peter Gallagher and also Patti LuPone as Vera. If nothing else it whetted our appetite for this full scale revival. Whether or not everything fell into place to make this current revival the best of all of them, “Pal Joey” is a musical that smartly and smugly stands apart from all the other musicals of the golden age and shall remain Rodgers’ and Hart’s most sophisticated collaboration. ***
“Pal Joey,” limited engagement through February 15, Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. $36.50 to $126.50. 212-719-1300.