note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Larry Stark
Book by John O'Hara
Music by Richard Rogers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Directed by Weylin Symes & Caitlin Lowans
Music Director Jose Delgado
Choreography by Michelle Petrucci
Scenic Design by Christina Todesco
Lighting Design by Mark links
Costume Design by Tony Bratton Elliott
Sound Design by Ric Shapero
Production Manager Dave Brown
Assistant Stage Manager Andrea T. Healy
Production Stage Manager Jameson R. Croasdale
Linda..........Robyn Elizabeth Lee
Melba.............Kerry A. Dowling
Valerie...Christine Pardiila Reeds
The Kid.............Andrew Barbato
Decades ago, I bought a tiny paperback called "Pal Joey" by John O'Hara --- an epistolary novelette (or longish story?) of exquisite subtlety. The letters, all smarmily signed "Your Pal" were self-serving advertisements for Joey Evans, salted here and there with backbiting insults of his cruel enemies, or in some cases friends turned enemies. Since the letters were written by Joey, the true cesspool of his soul seemed in doubt till the very last snarl ("Hate yer guts!") to a former friend. I remember wondering how anyone could take this self-inflicted hatchet-job and turn it into a famous musical.
Not until last week at Stoneham Theatre did I see how O'Hara, Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart managed it.
Well, they introduce Joey auditioning for a sceptical club-owner in Chicago, claiming fantastic successes up and down the East Coast and promoting himself from hoofer/singer to emcee.
Then The Girls troup in --- in this case, not a carefully machined identical sextet you might find in "A Chorus Line" or The Rockettes, but a delightfully mismatched crew of tap-dancing singers, all sizes and shapes, who proceed to rehearse a paean to "Chicago!" not in costumes but in their street-dresses! And, lo and behold, one of them has a sister who, she insists, was the only chorine Joey couldn't seduce back on the West Coast.
So already, despite the polish and bravado, the astonishing good looks, and the excellence of his singing and tap-routines, Brad Bass' Joey Evans deserves the worldly judgement of Dale Place's club-owner --- and their new Emcee is already putting the make on five of the six dancers.
But Joey is an any-opportunity predator, and when he passes a girl (Robyn Elizabeth Lee) taken with a doggie in the window he can't resist lying his way into her heart --- just for practice. And when a rich society woman (Leigh Barrett) is first insulted then intrigued by his bravado he's quite eager to trade up to kept gigolo to replace "true" love --- especially when she's willing to buy him his own night-club!
Act Two is comeuppance-time, with an equally predatory agent (Scott Marshall makes him the fastest-talking charlatan on this or any stage!) trying to blackmail both Joey and his meal-ticket madam --- and Joey's expendable.
Okay, that's how the O'Hara story became The Book. How about Rogers and Hart?
Well, the doggie-lover falls for "I Could Write A Book", the rich lady admits to being "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" "In Our Little Den" of iniquity, and the chorus performs "Chicago" three times --- once in street desses, once fully costumed in the first club, then even more elaborately in Joey's new club --- but, without any lyrics changed, as a hymn this time to "Morocco"!
But, just as John O'Hara was the best short-story writer between Ernes t Hemingway and Irwin Shaw, "Pal Joey" is transitional between the tap-dance revue (like The "Garrick Gayities") and the toe-shoe musical (like "Carousel"), and some of the songs hang rather provisionally from fairly flimsy cues. For instance, the tuxedo'd new club-owner is interviewed by a newspaper columnist (Kerry A. Dowling) who insists the lies she makes up will be better than those he does. Then, proving she's a columnist, she launches into the classic song "Zip" insisting "I interviewed Gypsy Rose Lee last week, and this is what she said: "!
The songs do indeed either move the plot or explicate chracter, most of the time, but not all of the time.
And how are the performances?
Weylin Symes and Caitlin Lowans bring Michelle Petrucci's dance routines down on the apron of Christina Todesco's night-club set where both Joey's ego and aspirations and the smallness of his world and morals are everywhere in evidence.
I have chased this musical (the movie sucks) for thirty years or so, and finally, in this thoroughly satisfying Stoneham Theatre production, I finally got to see the Book that holds all those familiar songs together.
It was worth the wait.