Photo by Don Kellogg

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pal Joey

When the leading man hurts his foot and there's no time to find a replacement you do the only thing you can - throw the understudy to the wolves! Rogers and Hart's re-invented 1940 Pal Joey, Roundabout Theatre Company's final installment in 2008, made its lackluster debut tonight at Studio 54 less one Tony award winning cast member, Christian Hoff. I wish i could tell you it was a smash-hit and that Matthew Risch pulled a "Shirley MacClaine", but it was unfortuantely an all-around disappointment. When numbers in the show get polite applause (some, none at all) and not a single patron gets out of his seat at the opening night curtain call - it's quite obvious that we were all beguiled (again). I highly doubt that Mr. Hoff would have singlehandedly turned this lemon into lemonade. The entire performance left me more bothered and bewildered than bewitched.

To start with, Stockard Channing (Vera Simpson) is miscast. Ms. Channing (tv's West Wing) is a legendary 62 year old stage and
screen star who lacks one critical ingredient necessary for a musical - she can't sing. Joey Evans, the central character of this show needs to be, much like Charity Hope Valentine needed to be in Sweet Charity, a triple threat - singer, actor, dancer. Matthew Risch (Legally Blonde), while stunningly handsome and dripping with sexuality, unfortunately is only a single threat as a dancer. Singing, not so much. Acting, just average.

The stand-out performer in this show just might be Martha Plimpton (Top Girls, Cymbeline, The Coast of Utopia) as Gladys Bumps. Richard Greenberg's revised book eliminates the old reporter role played in the 1952 Broadway revival by Elaine Stritch, and gives the show-stopping number, Zip, to Ms. Plimpton, who knocks it out of the house in her musical theatre debut. If there were anyone to be even considered for a Tony in this production I hope it's Ms Plimpton.

I couldn't help but thinking that I would love to have seen the 1995 Encores! concert version staring Patti Lupone, Peter Gallagher, and Bebe Newirth. And just for the record, I did go home and listen to the legendary Elaine Stritch regale the audience in her hit show, At Liberty, with her role in Pal Joey in New Haven in 1952 at the Shubert Theatre at the same time she was understudying Ethel Merman in Call me Madam at the Imperial Theatre in New York.

As always, Paul Gemignani, does wonders with the orchestral direction. Graciela Daniele provides above average choreography by keeping the show pumping with lots of high kicks. bumping and grinding. Joe Mantello, on the other hand, has seemingly failed to nail any substantial new message or brilliant interpretation of the work. I would be remiss if I did not mention the extraordinary costumes assembled by William Ivy Long. If it's any consolation, Tony #2 from this overall disappointing production might just be his for the asking.