Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pal Joey (Studio 54)

By Molly
• musical • lots of dancing • sexy and sophisticated • takes place in the 1930's in Chicago • a truly stellar production

BOTTOM LINE: A traditional feeling musical with incredible choreography and a kick-ass cast. It's a first-rate production guaranteed to make you happy (if musicals are your sort of thing).

If the 1930's had a word for douchebag, that's how one would refer to Joey Evans, the wanna-be performer and club owner for whom Pal Joey is titled. And if Joey Evans were around today, he would no doubt pop his collar and wear a Livestrong bracelet. Joey is a tool of the highest order, but his looks and charm always help him get his way. And Matthew Risch, the new-ish actor who fell into the roll (he was the understudy for Christian Hoff who had to step out of the production during previews) knows how to make Joey devilishly cruel yet completely endearing.

Pal Joey is a musical from the early 1940's that has been revived on Broadway a handful of times since, although until late last year it had been a few decades. This particular production comes from Roundabout Theatre Company (the savants behind many of the recent critically acclaimed musical revivals including last season's Sunday in the Park With George). Part of the reason Roundabout's productions are so inspired is because they work with talents of the highest order. Pal Joey also stars Stockard Channing and Martha Plimpton and is directed by Joe Mantello of Wicked fame. I'll stop with the name-dropping now, but suffice to say everyone who worked on Pal Joey has the chops to be collaborating with their talented peers. And with plentiful resources, Pal Joey is a truly wonderful show.

Here's a brief plot description–and yes, it's a tad like the musical Chicago in that it takes place in the same city in nearly the same era. And also like Chicago, Pal Joey centers around performers (making it much less awkward when the cast randomly breaks into song and dance). At the heart of the story is Joey, a womanizing crooner who's new in town. He books his act at a local club on the south side, although he is jonesing for something bigger, to actually own the club himself. After meeting and charming the pants off of the socialite Mrs. Simpson (Channing), Joey convinces her to fund his new career. She bites, but mostly because she's bored. There are another couple of girls in the picture and Joey finds himself torn between love, loyalty, and a whole slew of dirty, dirty lies. And musical numbers fill in the rest.

I hadn't seen any version of Pal Joey until now, really because the opportunity hasn't presented itself. I have to assume that the show is just rarely done, maybe because it's hard to pull off without money and talent, and maybe because it's a lesser-known schmammy musical. I'll admit the music is brilliant in the moment but largely unmemorable (famous song = "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered") and the script isn't totally tight (these characters fall in love in a ball-change and a head turn). But Richard Greenberg wrote the new book (he is the renowned playwright of Take Me Out and Three Days of Rain) and he did a fine job honing in on the meat of the characters and creating a more cohesive play. And plus, Pal Joey is based on a series of short stories anyway, written by John O'Hara in the 1930s and published in The New Yorker. Shortcomings aside, this production of Pal Joey is fantastic. If this is a genre you adore, especially when it is full of genuine charm that lets you completely escape from the real world, then you must see this show. It only runs through March 1 and you'd be a fool to miss it.

(Pal Joey plays at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St between 8th and 9th Avenues through March 1. The show runs 2 hours and 30 minutes, Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $36.50 – $126.50 or $20 if you are under 35 and a member of Hiptix. To purchase tickets call 212.719.1300. Visit for more show info.)

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