The Rodgers and Hart songs in “Pal Joey” are certainly easy on the ear, but what makes the Roundabout revival of their 1940 show so compelling is Richard Greenberg’s trenchant adaptation of the original book by John O’Hara. Erasing the sanitizing stamp of musical-theater coyness, Greenberg brings a fascinating melancholy grubbiness to this cynical story of sordid emotional transactions and opportunistic behavior in late-1930s Chicago. It’s a dark show for desperate times, with enough dramatic meat on its bones to work even as a nonmusical play. And like “Cabaret” a few years back, it seems right at home in the decadent former playpen of Studio 54.
A modest success that drew mixed reviews in its premiere, “Pal Joey” only really became a hit in a 1952 revival. Stop-start plans for this Broadway production have been brewing for years; it was one point being eyed as a possible vehicle for Hugh Jackman after “The Boy From Oz.”
Early attention to Roundabout’s revival focused on backstage drama concerning “Jersey Boys” Tony winner Christian Hoff’s abrupt exit during previews, to be replaced by unknown understudy Matthew Risch. While the official reason was that Hoff injured his foot, negative reports about his performance fueled speculation he may have been encouraged to quit.
The good news is that while Risch is neither a top-drawer singer nor dancer, he’s doing creditable work as louche lounge lizard Joey Evans. He has the right thuggish good looks, sleazy charisma and self-assured moves to play the unscrupulous gigolo. This is not quite a star-is-born moment, but Risch understands the role of the inveterate cad and he knows how to sell it.
Likewise director Joe Mantello, choreographer Graciela Daniele and set designer Scott Pask; their seamless collaboration makes this apparent the moment the curtain goes up. An opening ballet shows Joey getting beat up and flung to the ground in an alley before a scrim rises as he dusts himself off, adjusts his fedora at a rakish tilt and weaves sinuously among a series of scantily clad floozies who can’t get enough of him. Without a word spoken, we know much of what we need to know about this shady antihero.
We know about the underworld he inhabits, too, as speakeasy lights drop down, a spiral staircase descending deep below street level comes into view, and Paul Gallo’s noirish lighting slices the inky haze. Overhead are two broken stretches of Chicago El track, suggesting the transient nature of Joey’s existence and the bridges he has burnt along the way.
Basically a romantic triangle with extra edges, the story follows Joey as he gets a singing gig in a South Side club, meets and charms fresh-from-Wisconsin nice girl Linda English (Jenny Fellner) and then seduces reluctant cougar Vera Simpson (Stockard Channing), a wealthy woman with a distracted husband. Vera buys Joey a new wardrobe, rents a love nest for them and sets him up in his own nightclub. But Linda gets wise to Joey’s double life, while his unfair treatment of his cohorts prompts a blackmail scheme, souring Vera to her walk on the wild side.
Greenberg has laced the new book with plenty of snappy quips, many of which go to Channing. “You seem to be trying to save my soul and take my money at the same time,” Vera says to her blackmailer. “I mean — I’m sorry — I just didn’t expect this to be so much like church.”
But it’s the frank treatment of the taboo side of this world that gives this “Pal Joey” its texture, with casual references to “nose candy” and other drugs, to semi-clandestine homosexual relationships and gay society hangers-on. There’s also an allusion to an abortion in Joey’s past acquaintance with singer Gladys Bumps (Martha Plimpton) that enhances the suggestion of the bad blood he leaves behind him.
Underlining the ways in which the club acts in “Pal Joey” slyly comment on the main action, Mantello, Daniele and Greenberg have done impressive work fluidly integrating the musical numbers and dramatic scenes. The squawking, period-appropriate voices and faux-Fosse moves of the chorus girls seem to mock self-satisfied Joey, notably as they parade around in slutty widow’s weeds in “Happy Hunting Horn.”
In the numbers that close act one and open act two, there’s a witty juxtaposition between Joey’s imagined success and his tacky reality. In one of many resourceful transformations of Pask’s twin-turntable set, a curling silver staircase appears, flanked by glass-brick columns, as cumbersomely costumed follies girls descend in a display as lavish as it is vulgar. But that glamour-fantasy view of “Chez Joey” is almost tasteful compared with “The Flower Garden of My Heart,” a grotesquely funny production number with chorines parading clumsily around in horticultural hoochie outfits.
The major discovery is Plimpton’s heretofore-hidden musicality. Vamping up a storm as the red hot mama in “That Terrific Rainbow” or doing an intellectual semi-strip in Hart’s clever homage to Gypsy Rose Lee, “Zip,” she’s a knockout, in part because she’s such a surprising choice for the trashy blond bombshell. Her Gladys is jaded beyond repair but still appealing, even in some not-exactly demure getups, and Plimpton’s comic timing is flawless.
Channing’s voice is less confident and her pitch a little wobbly. But even half-talking her songs, she puts across the rueful resignation of “What Is a Man?” with elegance (“They’re all alike/They’re all I like”) and pours enough bruising self-deprecation into “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” to make it work.
Looking like a million dollars in William Ivey Long’s gowns and oozing class and weary sophistication, Channing gives boozy Vera dignity, nicely understating the pathos of her helplessness to resist a guy she knows is bad for her. (There’s terrific chemistry in Channing’s scenes with Risch despite their considerable age difference.) She’s at her best vocally in duets, with Risch in their tawdry take on the happy homemaker song “In Our Little Den of Iniquity” and with the charming Fellner as they mutually surrender in “Take Him.”
Landing most of the show’s quieter numbers — including two songs smoothly interpolated from other Rodgers and Hart scores, “I Still Believe in You” and “Are You My Love?,” along with “Do It the Hard Way” and the standard “I Could Write a Book” — Fellner does a fine job both solo and paired with Risch.
While Paul Gemignani’s orchestra is larger and has a more robust sound than has been the recent norm at Studio 54, there’s a tendency to drown the lyrics in the upbeat numbers. Imperfections aside, however, especially for those of us who know “Pal Joey” only from recordings or from the bowdlerized 1957 screen version with Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth, the smoke-drenched, seamy world of this smart adult musical is intoxicating.