Pal Joey, Studio 54, New York

Pal Joey
© Financial Times

What is most striking about Pal Joey, now in a Roundabout revival at Studio 54, is how contemporary it feels. Assembly-line dancing, hard-edged cynicism and ravenous greed in the Windy City: surely this must be the Chicago of 1970s Kander and Ebb or 2008 political scandals, not the 1940 show written by Rodgers and Hart.

As sleekly directed by Joe Mantello and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, Roundabout’s production reminds us that Pal Joey was a game-changer (in character writing, in sexual explicitness) almost as much as Rodgers’ show with Hammerstein three years later, the archetype of musical-theatre revolution, Oklahoma!

Richard Greenberg’s revision of the original book by John O’Hara (based on material in The New Yorker) eliminates the lady-reporter character of Melba, giving to over-the-hill chorine Gladys Bumps the striptease show-stopper “Zip”, put over here by the sensationally hard-boiled Martha Plimpton. William Ivey Long’s witty costumes have zip of another kind, as do Scott Pask’s urban-jungle sets.

Greenberg retains the central story: late-night entertainer Joey Evans snares a rich older woman, Vera Simpson, who sets him up in his own Chicago club and attempts to snuff out Joey’s affair with the shopgirl Linda English. Greenberg and Mantello introduce a gay sub-element and snip away some of the too-topical references.

Matthew Risch stepped up to the Gene Kelly-originated part of Joey when the original lead, Christian Hoff, dropped out, and while Risch doesn’t quite achieve the pinnacle of Peter Gallagher in a 1995 New York concert revival, he is handsome, seductive, and a more-than-serviceable dancer. You understand why Vera would bed him and why she would shed him.

That we understand her older-woman pain when she sings “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” has something to do with the touching, hollowed-out portrayal of Stockard Channing as Vera and something to do with the imperturbably high quality of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics. If the sometimes modest singing of Channing and Plimpton contrasts with the lusher musical values of Broadway’s other current Rodgers-associated show, South Pacific, Pal Joey’s female principals show us how good acting can compensate for lack of vocal heft.

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