Studio 54, New York
“Pal Joey is probably the most hit-heavy musical you’ve never seen,” said Eric Grode in the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger. The score, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, is, quite simply, the duo’s best. But the book, written by John O’Hara, about Chicago nightclub song-and-dance man/lothario Joey’s romantic foibles, has always been considered a bit of a dud. Playwright Richard Greenberg has preserved the music, but radically reworked O’Hara’s script in an attempt to give the show new life. His efforts are admirable, and might have worked if not for an unfortunate incident that befell this production pre-opening. Jersey Boys veteran Christian Hoff left the cast at the last second, leaving the lead role in the lap of unknown understudy Matthew Risch. As a result, this Pal Joey’s thin where it needs to be substantial.
Any performer’s chops would be tested “following in the footsteps of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra,” said Thom Geier in Entertainment Weekly. Both legends propelled their careers playing Joey, the charming jerk who toys with women’s affections but really just wants their help in launching his own nightclub. Risch, while a serviceable singer and dancer who’s “never less than professional,” lacks Joey’s rakish affability. An audience needs to be convinced that Joey can both mistreat sugar mama Vera (Stockard Channing) and aging showgirl Gladys (Martha Plimpton), yet still charm them enough to “keep them coming back for more.” Risch works hard, but that kind of charisma is something you’re born with.
Nonetheless, “a major singing-and-dancing talent” has emerged from this cast, said Jesse Oxfeld in New York. As Gladys, the “nightclub singer with a heart of blackmail,” Plimpton displays first-rate moves and uncanny comic timing. Her singing voice is surprisingly strong, notably on her second-act charmer, “Zip.” Channing likewise gives a winning performance as “ur-cougar” Vera. Channing “doesn’t much know her way around a song,” but Greenberg and director Joe Mantello have reworked Vera’s numbers, such as the excellent “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” to allow her a seductive “speak-sing” delivery that works. Both actresses will leave audiences in a pant.