1940 musical resists a definitive production

The new Joe Mantello-helmed revival of “Pal Joey” has received the kind of reviews that should send any serious theatergoer running to the Studio 54 box office. Not that those notices have been universal raves — such positive critical response is usually reserved for productions that meet expectations rather than challenge them.

Mantello’s “Joey,” on the other hand, is a defiant “Joey,” and the reviews have been all over the map — a fact that should serve as an indicator to legit avids that the material is gutsy enough to warrant attention.

In theory, theater people love this 1940 Rodgers & Hart tuner, but in practice it is one of those flawed shows (like Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 outing “Follies”) that resists a definitive production. Besides, the story of Joey the gigolo, out to bilk an older married lady named Vera, has always been one of the darkest tales to inspire a Broadway tuner. It makes Sondheim’s oeuvre look positively upbeat.

Still, it’s bizarre to see Mantello’s staging pejoratively described as “ruthless,” “joyless” and “unhappy” — as if such qualities don’t compute in musical theater.

One of the controversies of this “Joey” is that its leading man, newcomer Matthew Risch, the understudy who replaced Christian Hoff in the eleventh hour, fails to deliver the requisite dollop of charm to his catting around. Reviewers have compared him with actors they never saw in the role, namely Gene Kelly, or men who have never essayed Joey onstage, including Hugh Jackman, Harry Connick Jr. and, yes, Frank Sinatra, who insisted, among other woeful ideas, that he sing “The Lady Is a Tramp” in the misconceived (and far happier) 1957 film version.

There’s a precedent for such hypothetical reviewing. In the New York Times in the 1970s, Clive Barnes opined that Edward Villella would make a great Joey. When the New York City Ballet principal later withdrew from the 1976 Broadway revival after only a few previews, Barnes vehemently trashed his replacement, Christopher Chadman, for not measuring up to a Joey he had never seen.

A big, toothy movie star might have assured theatergoers that this cad really wasn’t what he is — a cad. Risch, to his credit, offers a tough, uncompromising portrait that allows only two brief moments of moral conscience — both of which lead Joey to shield his girlfriend Jenny from, well, Joey.

When critics carp about such a louse being at the center of a musical, one has to wonder if any of them has seen “Don Giovanni,” the acknowledged masterpiece of an opera that offers the template not only for Joey but also for the trio of female characters (Vera, Jenny and jaded singer Gladys) in “Pal Joey.”

Coincidence or not, Risch’s Joey is a younger brother of Erwin Schrott’s Don Giovanni, seen at the Met Opera earlier this season. When these guys smile, it’s the devil’s work at play with any woman’s affections. If the show offers a pessimistic view of female sexuality, then so be it. Joey and Giovanni, not the women, are the ones going straight to hell.

Mantello’s take on “Joey” is actually much less bleak than Peter Sellar’s much-acclaimed “Don Giovanni” from the 1980s, which featured not only a contempo urban ghetto but also a heroin-addicted Donna Elvira. C’mon, are Broadway crix really more conservative than their stuffy opera brethren?As one prominent Broadway talent put it to me not long ago, “The New York critics are, for the most part, a depressed lot who have no problem being challenged by plays but look to the musicals to cheer themselves up.”

In the end, Mantello and Risch’s Joey is an easy antihero to understand, if not love. Even before this production begins, auds at Studio 54 encounter the towering el of Scott Pask’s unit set. We first see Joey being beaten up under those looming elevated train tracks and it’s where we see him exit at tuner’s end. He’s dead broke coming and going. This musical was written in the final days of the Great Depression and it has received a riveting production at the dawn of what looks like a new one. How can we not identify with a guy who will do anything to survive?

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