Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Pal Joey"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


book by John O’Hara based on his novella “Pal Joey”
music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics by Lorenz Hart
directed by Weylin Symes and Caitlin Lowans
choreographed by Michelle Petrucci
musical direction by Jose Delgado

Joey … Brad Bass
Vera … Leigh Barrett
Linda … Robyn Elizabeth Lee
Ludlow … Scott Marshall
Gladys … Ceit McCaleb
Melba … Kerry A. Dowling
Valerie … Christine Pardilla Reeds
Agnes … Michelle Petrucci
Mike … Dale Place
O’Brien … Brendan McNab
The Kid … Andrew Barbato
Dotty … Allison Russell
Dolores … Rocio Valles

Conductor; Keyboard … Jose Delgado
Bass … Mike Ball
Trumpet … Sheldon Ross
Percussion … Mick Lewander

The classic Rodgers & Hart musical PAL JOEY began as a series of fictional letters written by John O’Hara and published in the New Yorker; they are penned and signed by “Pal Joey”, a brash young nightclub singer to “Pal Ted”, a bandleader. Joey can best be described as a wolf, a heel, a cad and other now-quaint terms: he brags and lies about his engagements, his sexual conquests and his dreams and schemes. He is cunning in his ambition but dumb in his outlook (the letters are riddled with grammar mistakes) and as Pal Ted climbs up the ladder to success, Pal Joey slides down it. The stories were collected into book form; soon after, Mr. O’Hara asked the Messrs. Rodgers & Hart, one of showbiz’s great partnerships, if they would be interested in collaborating on turning his stories into a musical. The two men agreed; Mr. O’Hara wrote the libretto and Rodgers & Hart came up with a memorable score that includes “I Could Write a Book” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (Rodgers & Hart had only one more show waiting in the wings; though his lyrical gifts never waned, Mr. Hart’s alcoholism and self-torment over his homosexuality had made him increasingly difficult to work with --- when the team split up, Mr. Rodgers turned to Mr. Hammerstein; Mr. Hart died soon after the premiere of OKLAHOMA!) The Joey stories are episodic, even Chekhovian: their punch comes from what happens in between and how Joey crows or gripes about them, afterwards; Mr. O’Hara only takes a few elements from the letters: the “mouse” that Joey charms in front of a pet shop window becomes Jean, the nice girl-love interest and Joey’s interview with newspaperwoman Melba Snyder leads into her mock-strip “Zip” number as she mimes Gypsy Rose Lee’s thoughts while performing. The role of Vera, the middle-aged society dame who picks up, keeps and drops Joey and the comic subplot involving blackmail are the major additions. The times (1940) being prim, Mr. O’Hara whitewashed enough of his anti-hero so that Joey does little more than flirt with his chorus girls though he hasn’t lost his braggadocio --- still, such lyrics as Vera’s “couldn’t sleep/and wouldn’t sleep/until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep” managed to raise quite a few eyebrows back then.

The original Broadway production of PAL JOEY opened in 1940 with Gene Kelly and Vivienne Segal as Joey and Vera; the reviews on the whole were respectable but the show’s frankness and subject matter prompted New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson to ask, “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” (Mr. Atkinson’s question devastated Mr. Hart who considered PAL JOEY to be his and Mr. Rodgers’ best work, yet.) PAL JOEY closed after a run of over 300 performances (again, respectable, but not an artistic triumph); a decade or so later, Columbia Records recorded the score with Ms. Segal again as Vera and Harold Lang as Joey which in turn led to these performers starring in the acclaimed 1952 revival that won the New York Drama Critics Award and had Mr. Atkinson now as its greatest champion. The musical was filmed in 1957 with Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak; Joey was tailored to fit Mr. Sinatra’s swinger image, the plot was whitewashed even further and film critic Pauline Kael summed it all up as “a botch”. Does PAL JOEY hold up, today? Yes --- it’s no OKLAHOMA! in terms of advancing the genre but it certainly advanced the genre’s choice of subject material with its less-than-glamorous look at showbiz life and its characters being a collection of users and swindlers. The Messrs. O’Hara, Rodgers and Hart get across the musical’s casual amorality through wisecracks rather than through hard-hitting drama and, not surprisingly, the evening’s true love-duet is not Joey and Jean’s “I Could Write a Book” but, rather, “In Our Little Den” where Joey and Vera dryly comment on their living arrangements.

The Stoneham Theatre production, played in period, is the first JOEY I have seen onstage; somewhere between 1952 and now changes have been made to the script: the first half of “The Flower Garden of My Heart” is now sung by nightclub owner Mike and The Kid just to give them something to do, “Plant You Now, Dig You Later” is given to the blackmailing Gladys and Lowell, and instead of the show concluding with Joey ditching Jean for another skirt, he strolls off after a puppy-dog reprise of “I Could Write a Book” (ah, how the political winds are blowing in every corner, nowadays!) --- but at least the show hasn’t gone the way of SHOW BOAT’s bowdlerizing. The changing times have made Joey one of us (or vice versa?) and on the night I attended the packed house chuckled and winked where indicated. The production is good enough and when I scribble “enough” this does not imply amateurism --- there is some solid talent trotting out on the Stoneham boards --- my reservation comes from watching the ensemble, most of them bred on New Musicals, now taking on old-fashioned musical comedy with its tap dancing, its period humor and its songs that have to be “sold” as well as illuminated. Thus the tap dancing is heavy-handed rather than light-footed, the humor is underlined to get its obvious points across and in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”, Leigh Barrett, while vocally excellent, fusses at her make-up table which only gets in the way of Vera’s reflection (no pun intended). Judging by the number of critics that I counted in the house, Ms. Barrett is clearly the production’s draw and she rewards them with her warmest performance in years. I first encountered Ms. Barrett sunny side up in SpeakEasy’s A CLASS ACT, several years ago, and felt a growing concern as she immersed herself in Mr. Sondheim’s world with similar side trips along the way, growing grimmer, colder in the process. Happily, Ms. Barrett is such a superb artist that she can close one drawer and open another for bearing and tone: her sailing through Mr. Sondheim’s complexities allows her to now fly through Mr. Hart’s simpler-sounding but no less potent lyrics and when coupled with her innate musicality her Vera enchants, pure and simple. Ms. Barrett’s stage-guardedness lends backbone to Vera’s high-stepping status and also a refined sexiness more alluring than any vamping would accomplish.

In comparison, Brad Bass’ Joey is a fresh-faced, fresh-mouthed frat boy with little darkness to him but Mr. Bass sings and dances well enough and Robyn Elizabeth Lee’s Jean is conventional as most Good Girls are. Dale Place, one of Boston’s overlooked leading men, is wasted as Mike; should any theatre consider producing the 1967 musical HENRY, SWEET HENRY, Mr. Place would be ideal as the suave concert pianist who makes schoolgirls swoon. A CLASS ACT also introduced me to Kerry A. Dowling’s charms and hers is such an agreeable earth mother personality that I have yet to tired of it though I wonder what sort of villainess Ms. Dowling would make if given a chance (and what about Lola in COME BACK, LITTLE SHEEBA, with Christopher Chew as Doc?); her “Zip” is healthy, hearty eroticism but is upstaged by the Messrs. Bass and Place providing visual back-up. Scott Marshall is amusing for awhile as the dese-and-dose Lowell and Ceit McCaleb plays Gladys as the hardest cookie in town and stalks off with the show firmly in her fist; whatever homework Ms. McCaleb has done for the role she, more than anyone else, captures the sour, smoky tang of Mr. O’Hara’s original stories which is quite an achievement considering her character doesn’t exist in their pages.

Despite my reservations, I recommend this PAL JOEY for the pendulum is swinging back to conservative times and the times will be calling for a return to conservative entertainment. Musical theatre performers will need encouragement in reforging a connective tissue to the Golden Age of American Musicals and if you are in the Boston area these next few weeks, this PAL JOEY is a good, even great, place to start the applause-ball rolling. And, of course, there is always Ms. Barrett as your carrot on a stick….

"Pal Joey" (15 September-2 October)
395 Main Street, STONEHAM, MA
1 (781) 279-2200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide