Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pal Joey

What was director Joe Mantello thinking? I love the idea of promoting the understudy to the leading role, but Matthew Risch is not only incapable of carrying this show, I’m surprised he was ever even cast as an understudy for the starring role.

I hate to be so harsh, but this is show business and when you’re staging a major Broadway revival and expecting people to pay about $100 a ticket, you need some star quality. That certainly doesn’t have to mean a bold face name -- look at the pizzazz Cheyenne Jackson gave to Zanadu when he took over for an injured lead -- but Risch hasn’t an ounce of Joey Evans’ sleazy sexiness, the magnetism that causes so many women to make fools of themselves over him. Risch as Joey wouldn’t even stand out in a room full of computer programers.

Christian Hoff had been scheduled to play Joey, the womanizing, smalltime song and dance man in 1930s Chicago in this Rodgers and Hart classic. The official word is that he sustained a foot injury during previews that necessitated his leaving; the unofficial word is that he wasn’t a skilled enough dancer for the role. Well, Risch, who took over the lead in November, is a competent hoofer, but his singing is weak and his acting even weaker. Having seen Hoff twice in his Tony-winning role as Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys, I can imagine him in the part even if choreographer Graciela Daniele had to tweak the dancing a bit. The producers should have kept him or recast entirely because the whole show revolves around Joey and Risch hasn’t got what it takes to pull it off.

Another miscast leading player is Stockard Channing (in photo with Risch) as Vera Simpson, the rich, older married woman whom Joey charms into fronting him in a nightclub of his own. She seems to be phoning it in from some place as distant as 1930s Chicago, which is especially disappointing when she drags through the show’s most well-known -- and provocative -- number, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” I’ve heard advertising jingles sung far more seductively.

Jenny Fellner is effective as Linda English, the nice girl who falls for Joey, but the only real shining star in the production is Martha Plimpton as Gladys Bumps, an aging singer and one of Joey’s cast-aside lovers. If the producers wanted to recast the lead from within, they should have just put a tuxedo on her and let her play Joey. She could carry the show, and she does whenever she’s onstage. The best scene is when she sings “Zip,” about brains versus the dumb stripper’s image. It’s almost as delectable as Christine Ebersole’s hysterical performance of “Revolutionary Costume for Today” in Grey Gardens.

This revival of the 1940 musical features a new book by Richard Greenberg based on the original by John O'Hara. Music direction is by Paul Gemignani, the minimalist set by Scott Pask, shadowed lighting by Paul Gallo and showbiz and Depression-era costumes by William Ivey Long.

Pal Joey had been scheduled to play a limited engagement through Feb. 15 at Studio 54, but has been extended through March 1. I’m assuming the extension is fueled by the recent closings of more than a dozen Broadway shows, meaning theatregoers have fewer offerings to choose from. Just look at last Sunday’s ABCs (theatre listings) in the New York Times and you’ll find only a half a page instead of the usual full page. Not a lot out there. Sorry times on Broadway all around.

For Pal Joey tickets, call (212) 719-1300 or visit

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