Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It's All About The Gal Pals - Pal Joey - Musical Review

Pal Joey - Studio 54 - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
Music and Lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Original Book by John O'Hara, Newly Adapted by Richard Greenberg, Directed by Joe Mantello

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com:

Okay, this review is a bit late (though my review for 9 to 5, also directed by Joe Mantello, is REALLY late and will pop up eventually) as I saw this twice during my trip to New York last November but well, here it is, even if its mainly for my own archival sake.

I saw both the "original" Joey with Christian Hoff and then again when he "left the show" and Matthew Risch was bumped from hot young chorus boy to hot new star. And I'll get straight to it. I thought Hoff was fine as a dancer and his acting really was the draw, but his voice was very off and all over the place, surprising considering how long he lasted at the vocally intense Jersey Boys. Still, I thought he was generally fine and not as horrific as some early buzz had it, but I did expect more from a Tony Award winner.

Matthew Risch (pictured in all the photos here) naturally fits the character better, being younger and more limber, and thus his affair with the older woman makes a bit more sense. Risch is a nice dancer and his body has a smoothness to his movements, and his youth automatically fills his character easily, but he doesn't quite nail the tricky balance between being a cad and being loved as a lead in a show. His voice is good, and better than Hoff's, but overall, he still lacks the complete star power required for the role.

But what lacks in the male lead of Pal Joey, is made up with its women. From an unbelievable musical debut from Martha Plimpton (Top Girls, above) who was already securing herself as a solid dramatic stage actress, to the power of Stockard Channing (The West Wing) who despite an imperfect singing voice, gets away with it with her exuberant presence. She's just that awesome. Jenny Fellner manages to be a complete delight and stay her own against the other fabulous (and more famous) women as well as a great female ensemble.

Stockard Channing (who I will forever bow to just for being in Six Degrees of Separation, not to mention the rest of her career) is Vera Simpson here and plays the older (and richer) woman that our pal Joey uses to get what he wants (a nightclub with his name on it). Channing's singing voice isn't strong but she manages to turn her raspy voice into "character" as she half speaks her songs. Outrage to some looking forward to "Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered" but I wasn't that bothered by it since I was still bewitched by Stockard Channing herself.

While the book has been revised, there still seems to be some plotholes and the entire musical feels incomplete with a trying-too-hard-with-a-modern spin, but I like the overall darkness of the story even if I wasn't sure what some of the characters were really meant for. I mean, Joey really loves Linda English (Jenny Fellner) but goes with Vera but then there is Melba Snyder (Martha Plimpton) as his ex? And rival... something? Considering this is a revival, there still seems to be a lot of loose ends, inconsistencies and random plots and characters.

Of course, whether Melba fits coherently into the story or not, she's another reason this show is worth watching, as we see Martha Plimpton prove she CAN do anything (and that she's been sadly withholding her musical star talents from us for years, one that shall never happen again!), as she steals the show anytime she's on stage. Her rendition of "Zip" is showstopping (even if the song seems completely incongruent from the rest of the show) and such a joy to watch.

The chorus of girls that play a... chorus of girls are cute and each surprisingly create individual characters in their little time given, and Robert Clohessy does what he can with the etched out Mike (who is now in the closet which apparently is a new addition to the book).

Still, despite a large uneveness with the show as a whole, and actresses that overshadow the lead title character, I was still beguiled by the dark charms of the show and the great swoop of the Chicago sky train rails that loom over the serviceable set. And even though Hoff and Risch missed elements for a perfect Pal Joey, I still thought both had elements in their performances that were great (and I've seen far worse in leading performances), and like the character, the show itself may have been imperfect, slightly bad and with a dark side, I was still seduced enough to enjoy and accept it all for what it is.

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