Billy Wilder once told underemployed Hollywood director Erich von Stroheim that as a filmmaker he was 10 years ahead of his time. "Twenty years, Mr. Wilder,” von Stroheim replied. “Twenty
and Lorenz Hart
could have related to the dilemma of “The Man You Love to Hate.” When Pal Joey premiered on Broadway on Christmas Day 1940, audiences didn’t know how to take this sardonic gift from the songwriting pair. Hart died three years later, believing a show whose seedy milieu he knew intimately had failed.
Rodgers, at least, had the dubious comfort of seeing later entertainment artists succeed with the same risky subject matter he and his troubled partner had pioneered. An older woman keeping a gigolo in high style (Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard
, with von Stroheim in a flashy supporting role)? Rodgers and Hart’s show predated it by 10 years. An emcee of subpar talent, in a louche big-city nightclub during the economically desperate 1930s (Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical Cabaret)
? Again, check for Rodgers and Hart—a quarter century before.
Since its premiere, the success of Pal Joey
has been hit or miss. The show demands far more of both audience and cast than Rodger’s subsequent successes with later lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. All the way to the end, it doesn’t compromise in the slightest in its jaundiced view of the love triangle at its heart, giving theatergoers little to root for. (When New York Times
critic Brooks Atkinson analyzed the original show, he asked: ''Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?'' As you might have guessed by now, his answer was no.)
Consequently, so much—everything, really—depends on how the show is cast. It needs performers that will make listener sit up, pay attention, marvel, and salute, despite revulsion against actions onstage that are at best stupid and self-defeating and that at worst are deceitful or abusive. In an ordinary theater environment marked by high ticket prices, this can be a dicey proposition.
In the current one, when theatergoers look askance at any production that doesn’t reach superiority in every way—well, if you want someone willing to overlook and even forgive the usual human imperfections, seek out those guys in white collars who head up certain houses of worship.
I can’t tell you how much I wanted the current revival—or, as it happens, “revisal”—of Pal Joey at the Roundabout Theatre Co.’s Studio 54
to succeed. Countless pop and jazz renditions of several of its better-known numbers over the years left me curious as to how they worked in their original theatrical context.As a fan of John O’Hara
, the author of the musical’s original source (an epistolary novel in the manner of Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al
) as well as its unusually hard-hitting book, I’d also like the show to help revive interest in a novelist and short-story writer who, partly through his own fault (he was a class-conscious, often misanthropic SOB), has never received the critical acclaim he deserves.
You may wonder why I called this production a “revisal” of the musical. The reason lies in the Roundabout’s decision to commission Richard Greenberg
to rewrite O’Hara’s book.
Revising the “books” of old musicals has become the fashion in recent years on Broadway. You can imagine the thinking behind this: “Everybody is coming for the glorious old songs, anyway. Why not just cut to the chase and eliminate the between-songs patter that now sounds hopelessly sentimental or politically incorrect?”
But we’re not talking about something like the early, pre-Of Thee I Sing
Gershwin musicals, for instance, in which plots were unapologetic pieces of fluff. We’re not even talking about something like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song
, which undoubtedly would raise hackles with its then-current stereotypes about Asian-Americans.
No, O’Hara’s plot was and is crucial in providing a springboard for the character-driven songs here. The novelist’s view of human nature is shorn of illusion (Joey on his parents: “They were real close—his fist and her face”), as likely now as in 1940 to put off theatergoers craving escapism. Furthermore, much of Joey’s rough-around-the-edges lingo remains intact from O’Hara’s original script, including “mouse” (Joey’s term for Linda English, the innocent new girl in the city who first catches his eye before he tosses her aside in favor of rich Vera), “nose candy,” and even “crib” (a place to sleep)
At the post-show “talk-back” I attended, I learned Greenberg’s contribution consisted of ginning up elements already inherent in O’Hara’s book, including hints of a major character’s homosexuality. As far as I can tell, Greenberg did no real violence to the original. It’s just hard to see why the Roundabout felt the need to tinker with something that didn’t require fixing.A Tough Break in Previews
While still in previews, the show was dealt a sharp, if not crippling, blow: Christian Hoff
, a Tony Award-winner for Jersey Boys
and the actor chosen to play Rodgers and Hart’s heel protagonist, Joey Evans, severely injured his ankle. Given that the role requires considerable fancy footwork, Hoff would have risked a far more severe and lasting injury if he came back too soon (though the scuttlebutt in the blogosphere is that the injury made for a nice cover story for sidelining a performer who wasn’t working out as envisioned).
With his decision to withdraw, the Roundabout decided to replace him permanently with understudy Matthew Risch, and pushed back the official press opening night one week, to December 18.
The problems of replacing a lead just before an opening—especially adjusting to an actor with a different take on a character—are considerable. Those difficulties are multiplied in this case, since Hoff brought with him a devoted and growing audience from his Jersey Boys
stint and his indefatigable humanitarian work.
Let’s be charitable: given the terrible break the show (and, of course, Hoff) experienced, the company—very much including Risch—has acquitted itself as well as can be expected.
No, I’m afraid that this production of Pal Joey
limps along not because of Mr. Hoff’s injury, but because of a fundamental flaw that would have remained in place even had he been unhurt: If you’re going to cast a musical, make sure all your principals can sing and dance. Don’t count on a musical director or choreographer performing miracles with a performer with years of inexperience (not to mention ingrained habits and the all-but-inevitable fears).Assessing Blame Where It Belongs
I didn’t have a problem with Scott Pask’s set design (the nightclub of Joey’s dreams, “Chez Joey,” is particularly snazzy), nor with Graciela Daniele’s choreography.
If you want to cast blame for the failings of this show, look no further than director Joe Mantello
, who was also responsible for two of my least-favorite Roundabout productions during my nearly dozen years as a subscriber: The Mineola Twins
and Design for Living
. (Memo to Roundabout artistic director Todd Haines: Ever hear of three strikes and you’re out? Mantello offers excellent justification for applying the old adage in your company.)
In a recent interview with The New York Times
, Stockard Channing
admitted to occasional concern that her character, socialite-of-a-certain-age Vera Simpson, could “be arrested for robbing the cradle” by taking up with Joey. That maturity gap now appears even wider with the title-role recasting of Risch, who is even younger than Hoff.
Most theatergoers at the preview I attended would, I think, agree with me, however, that Ms. Channing should have worried far more about her ability to carry a tune than her character’s romp with a youngster (who, for the record, appears to be in his twenties). It’s been a long time since the marvelous actress played Rizzo in the film version of Grease
, and the layoff shows.
When she finished her post-coital musing on the lover who has unexpectedly gotten under her skin, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Ms. Channing received only tepid applause for her talk-singing (more like uncertain warbling) of this standard.
Look, I don’t blame Ms. Channing in the slightest for wanting to tackle a new theatrical challenge late in her career.
But I’m afraid that The Roundabout has erred on the side of comfort, choosing someone with whom it worked successfully before (Ms. Channing aced the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the company’s 1999 production of The Lion in Winter
) instead of someone far more up to the vocal demands of the role, such as Patti Lupone (who earned considerable acclaim in the role of Vera in the 1995 Encores
! Production) or Donna Murphy.
The company acted similarly several years ago, when it cast the almost-always-reliable Blythe Danner more for her straight-line readings as the willowy, witchy former chorus girl in Follies
than for her singing. This does nobody a service, however.
Somewhat more successful is Martha Plimpton
as the felicitously named ecdysiast Gladys Bumps. As longtime readers of this blog might remember from my review of Cymbeline
last year, I yield to nobody in admiring her ability to transform herself into almost anything. I bet she could even wring untold pathos and comedy out of reading George W. Bush’s two inaugural addresses!
At times, though, this production made me seriously reevaluate that opinion. Ms. Plimpton is at a particularly serious disadvantage in Act I, when she pales considerably next to Mr. Risch and the chorus line in “You Mustn’t Kick It Around.” She does somewhat better with the Follies parody “The Flower Garden of My Heart,” and performs creditably indeed with Hart’s send-up of Gypsy Rose Lee’s intellectual pretensions, “Zip.” (I can’t imagine her topping Elaine Stritch’s show-stopping version of the song in the 1952 revival, but then again, who could?)
As for Mr. Risch: he does quite well with his dance numbers (a fairly demanding load, actually, compared with the decreasing norm for non-Fosse musicals these days). Neither is his singing or acting bad. It’s just that he doesn’t have the kind of electricity that can make you sympathize, in spite of yourself, with the raw, unremitting hunger that animates his character.Saving Graces
No matter how misconceived a show might be, it will still likely possess at least some saving grace that, several years down the road, a theatergoer will remember fondly. In 2003, the Roundabout’s revue of Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs, The Look of Love
—as misbegotten a production as can be concocted by a troupe of Broadway veterans—still contained a marvelous tap dance version of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” featuring Eugene Fleming and Desmond Richardson.
And so it proved with Pal Joey
. Watching the Irish Repertory Theater’s fine version of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple
a year ago, I wondered about the actress playing the flighty young minister’s wife, Jenny Fellner
. Was my annoyance with her really dictated by her thankless role instead of by her acting ability.
I’m now prepared to think it was. As Linda English, the “mouse” Joe discards, Ms. Fellner displays the strongest, truest voice of any of the lead actors here. More important, she rescues a character that even one of the show’s creators, Rodgers, had written off as an idiot.
In her final number, “I Still Believe in You,” Ms. Fellner brings to the fore the dignity of a woman who sees every one of the faults of the man she loves but also notices what others (including himself) can’t glimpse in him. That’s not the perception of a Pollyanna, but of someone who bravely dares to hope. Fellner’s interpretation goes a long way toward making Joe’s play-ending dilemma much more suspenseful than it should be—and helps re-orient, if only momentarily, a production that veered off course.
A final word about another saving grace: I recommend to my readers that if they ever watch a Roundabout show, they bought tickets for one of the Saturday afternoon post-show lecture series.
This time, Peter Filichia, theater critic for Theatermania
, held forth on the show’s origins. It was amusing to hear him hold forth on top-selling songs from the 1940s vs. today, as well as the origin of “I Could Write a Book” (it was Hart’s inside joke directed against O’Hara, who, having dashed off the book, didn’t attend the rehearsals—leaving rewrites in the hands of Hart, who joked, thinking of O’Hara, “If I wanted, I could write a book…”