Darkness on the Edge of Town

pal_joeyPal Joey

As a musical theater fan, I look forward to the chance to see one of our classic musicals for the first time. The current Roundabout Theatre production of Pal Joey gave me that opportunity. For whatever reason, I had never seen Pal Joey before, either onstage or in the movies. I'm certainly aware of its significance, so I looked forward to the Roundabout production, knowing that reactions have been decidedly mixed.

Overall, I'm mixed too; all in all, I rather enjoyed the show, but, at the same time, never could get excited about it; the fizz, sizzle, and -- to quote one of its best song titles, "zip" -- were missing.The character development isn't particularly strong, and there is little emotional pull. In spite of that, there were elements to like and admire in this production. I'll get to those later.

Pal Joey, of course, was written by the great team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, with a book by John O'Hara. The musical opened in 1940, starring Gene Kelly, and it was known as a groundbreaking and sophisticated musical. It has a dark story, and Joey, its lead character, is an anti hero -- he's an ambitious, manipulative cad. In the years since, there have been many dark musicals, but in 1940, Pal Joey must have been viewed as quite bold and different. It may have even been a difficult musical for people to appreciate at a time when musical theater tended to be lighter fare.

Perhaps that is part of the problem. What was bold in 1940 might seem tame today. So, in spots, Pal Joey seems too much like an attempt to mesh standard musical comedy with this darker, more jarring story. Nowadays, there is no need to mix and match -- musicals can be totally dark without also trying to mix in standard fare. Many of the musical numbers take place in a second-rate nightclub, and they really do little to advance the story or illuminate the characters. They were probably written in an effort to lighten an otherwise heavy story that features an unappealing leading character. As fully integrated musicals evolved after that time, the need to soften a dark-themed musical became less necessary. Nightclub numbers in shows such as Cabaret very much commented on the story we were watching. In Pal Joey, they basically took up time that might have been better spent fleshing out character development and building more drama into the story. This production features a rewritten book by noted playwright Richard Greenberg. Having never seen the musical before, I don't know whether the revisions help or hurt. I've read comments that reflect both viewpoints. And I can't tell you whether Joe Mantello's directorial approach brought out the best in Joey.

What I can say is that the often jazzy Rodgers and Hart score is a delight, with well-known classics including "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "I Could Write a Book" mixed with some lesser known but appealing songs. The dark themes are intriguing, and Mantello has provided a fluid staging that keeps the production moving. The sets, costumes, and overall atmosphere worked nicely. And, best of all, there are terrific performances from Stockard Channing and Martha Plimpton. I loved Channing as the wealthy married socialite who has an affair with, and financially backs, the much younger Joey. She looks stunning in some elegant William Ivey Long costumes, and she delivers some zingers with the proper bite and wit. She is not a great singer, but she acts the heck out of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," and she brought star presence whenever onstage. It is a treat to have the chance to see Ms. Channing in a musical. Ms. Plimpton is also a delight, playing an over-the-hill performer at the nightclub. She is a fine actress and a more than solid singer.

Joey is played by Matthew Risch, and he does a solid job. He took over the role during previews from Christian Hoff, who had won a Tony for his work in Jersey Boys. Hoff suffered an injury during rehearsals, but there also had been comments that he wasn't up to the dancing elements of the role. Risch dances well and acts nicely, but he doesn't quite have the charisma or charm to make the character more compelling.

Maybe, if created from scratch today, Pal Joey would be quite different and would be a fully integrated dark musical like those that Stephen Sondheim and others have written. But there still is much to appreciate in this Roundabout revival and, in spite of my reservations, I did ultimately enjoy the show and am glad to have had the opportunity to finally catch up with a musical of such historical weight. I was entertained, and there were some truly winning performances; but that something extra was missing, and I wasn't quite involved or absorbed enough, leaving me wishing for more drama, heat, and entertainment value from Pal Joey. - James Miller jim_miller.jpgMr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.