It might not be fair to comment on a show as early into its previews as Pal Joey was at the Roundabout’s Studio 54 when I saw it on Sunday, November 16th. But given the attention the production will no doubt receive, with a prominent feature on the lead, Christian Hoff, already in the Friday Arts section of the New York Times on November 20th, it bears registering some preliminary reactions.

The Rodgers and Hart show apparently hasn’t been revived often because although the music and the choreography (here by Graciela Daniele) are memorable, the awkward book is unsuccessful. Even in playwright Richard Greenberg’s revision, the story can’t redeem its hero from his fatal, womanizing charms. Since director Joe Mantello stays faithful to the original, setting it in the demimonde of 1930s Chicago’s nightclubs and high life, he asks spectators to consider the show a museum piece.

But aside from a spectacular set and lighting that evokes the seamy underside of Chicago’s Depression-era club culture, the production doesn’t register as much more than irritating. Its sexism remains unreconstructed and, for a show about jazz-era nightclubs, people of color are peculiarly absent in Mantello’s cast. These lapses make the show anachronistic instead of historical, as the revival’s concept doesn’t offer a new way of considering the characters or their actions.

The show hinges on spectators believing that Joey’s sexual charms endear him to a revolving cast of characters who then quickly recognize the banality and emptiness in his arrogant, manufactured romancing. Martha Plimpton plays Gladys Bumps, the sleazy but dignified chanteuse who tangled with Joey long ago, but not long enough to forget that he left her alone, unrepentant and irresponsible, with an illegal abortionist. That he can’t even recall her face fuels her desire for revenge, which she eventually exacts by blackmailing him and his latest romantic mark, the wealthy enabler, Mrs. Vera Simpson.

Plimpton smokes up the stage, playing against type as the tough, slinky Gladys. She finds emotional layers in a character that could easily be tossed off. Each of her dynamic numbers showcases her surprisingly rich voice and seductive dance moves, refreshing to see in an actor not known as a musical theatre magnet. Plimpton is the only one of the leads to project any charisma.

Stockard Channing, on the other hand, given top billing as the older woman Joey’s now fleecing, isn’t miscast so much as desperately underplaying the role. While the character’s sarcastic irony comes through in her performance, Channing’s nearly immovable face can’t register any emotion. Whether she’s enjoying Joey’s bragging about his masculine prowess or recognizing his inability to be faithful or honest, Channing’s face always looks the same. Even her body assumes the same weary, sardonic posture throughout, whether she’s swanning into nightclubs with her two male pieces of arm candy along or posing post-coital, peering at Joey with bemused regret.

Channing’s vocal investment is about as energetic as her physical presence. “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” should be the show’s most poignant number, but she sings it as though she’s humming it in the shower, barely projecting the melody or enunciating the lyrics.

The rest of the cast hits their marks, with Jenny Fellner nicely executing good-girl shop clerk Linda English’s offended self-righteousness when Joey throws her over for Vera. Robert Clohessy plays a grounded, nuanced Mike, the closeted gay man who runs the club in which Joey starts out. (I’m not familiar enough with the original to know if the character was always gay, or if Greenberg added this element to his revision of the book.) When Vera buys the nightclub for Joey, Mike becomes his hounded and humiliated employee, but finally finds his come-uppance by reluctantly joining Gladys in her scheme to blackmail Joey and Vera by publicizing their secret affair. Mike’s vulnerability as a gay man in 1930s Chicago is a major plot point, but it’s given little historical depth and no contemporary twist in this production.

Mantello’s direction serves but never illuminates the show. Daniele’s sexy and exuberant choreography outshines every other aspect of the revival.

It’s difficult to imagine how a few more weeks of previews (Pal Joey officially opens December 14, 2008) will address the hole at the production’s center. Christian Hoff is woefully miscast as the charismatic Joey. Hoff won a Tony for starring in Jersey Boys, but his dancing and his singing here are only adequate. Joey requires a performer of enormous magnetism, who can make his lovers, his business partners, and the audience believe his boastful claims and allow themselves to be swayed at least temporarily by his charisma. In the preview performance I saw, Hoff’s insecurity about his blocking, his lines, and his character prohibited any such seduction. Forced to play against Hoff’s hollow center, the other actors worked valiantly (except Channing, with whom Hoff managed to generate not one iota of chemistry). Without a virtuosic performer as Joey, the production teeters on the edge of the abyss Hoff opens.

Without a solid Joey and a steamy relationship between him and the redoubtable Vera, and with only Gladys showing any gumption as his nemesis, what remains is a sexist, misanthropic tale of an irredeemable shyster who uses women and gay men to promote himself. That Linda, who’s had the sense to toss him out when she learns of his infidelity, wants him back at the end plays as ludicrous here, another example of a smart but self-abusing woman willing to blind herself to the peccadilloes of an inappropriate mate.

Who needs to sit through that story again?

The Feminist Spectator

[NOTE: Just as I was posting this entry, I read in the New York Times “Arts, Briefly” (11/25/08, C2) that Christian Hoff has “withdrawn” from the production. The short piece cites producers who say that Hoff “injured his foot during a Friday night preview performance.” Hoff’s understudy, Matthew Risch, took over the rest of the weekend’s performances, and has now been cast as Joey permanently. Maybe with a new lead and a new opening date of December 18, the production can find some of the chemistry the preview I saw sorely lacked.]

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3 Responses to Pal Joey

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to break the news to you, Jill, but Hoff’s replacement, Matthew Risch, is the community theater Joey. A nice dancer but no singer or actor. And the 37 year age difference between Risch and Channing gives one the creepy feeling he’s romancing his grandmother. They should have stayed with Hoff.

  2. Jill Dolan says:

    Hey, Anonymous, thanks for writing. I did read that Risch has just a few very supporting roles on B’way to his credit; can’t imagine he’ll be able to carry a role of this magnitude. And your note about the age difference does give one pause. Guess we could be generous and hopeful about all this, but it seems dubious to me, too. Best, jd

  3. Anonymous says:

    I second Anonymous 6:12’s opinion above. “Community theater Joey” is a truly apt characterization of Risch. Actually HIS understudy, the Drummer, might make a better Joey, judging only from his brief time on stage. The original book has been reworked clumsily. Mike the club owner is a very minor character in the original, not gay, and the blackmailing is done by a talent agent, Lowell Ludlow, and Gladys. Lowell has been changed into a singer in this performance, and the original blackmail plot, which was complicated, has been so simplified as to be obvious. I did think that Stockard Channing was very good last night, and playing Vera as droll is actually not bad.

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