Walter Lippmann wasn’t brilliant today

And neither was the revival of Pal Joey which I saw last Sunday at Studio 54.

The musical by Rodgers and Hart, with a book by John O’Hara (based on his stories) is one of the first to offer an anti-hero as a protagonist. Joey is an opportunistic two-bit nightclub singer, doing whatever (and whoever) he can to headline his own club. The show wasn’t a huge success with 1940 audiences lasting almost a year and 374 performances. However, it did catapult a little known hoofer named Gene Kelly into stardom, soon leaving for Hollywood… well you know the rest. Vivienne Segal was the boozy, sardonic Vera, the uber-rich and uber-bored wife of a milk tycoon who becomes the object of Kelly’s intentions. Segal and Harold Lang recorded a studio album of the show in 1950 for Goddard Lieberson at Columbia records which helped bring the score back into the public’s consciousness (as well as preserving the glorious soprano’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” the most famous song from the score). The success of the studio album brought about the show’s first Broadway revival in 1952, which remains the most successful production of the show, with considerably more positive critical response than the first time around. The show lasted 540 performances. Lang and Segal recreated their roles with Tony-winner Helen Gallagher as Gladys and Elaine Stritch as Melba. (Stritch recounts her experiences in this production while simultaneously standing by for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam in At Liberty).

There was the 1957 film with Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak that bowlderized the story and lyrics while taking many creative liberties including a “happy ending,” interpolated other Rodgers and Hart standards and accommodating the non-dancing star Sinatra. This was followed by a Tony-nominated turn by Bob Fosse at the City Center in the early sixties and a troubled 70s revival with Joan Copeland and Dixie Carter as Melba.

Now we have a revisal of the show with a new book by Richard Greenberg and new orchestrations from Don Sebesky (in an unlikely splurge from the Roundabout folks: I counted 13 players in the pit). The ever-reliable Paul Gemignani is conducting. Unfortunately, aside from two key performances there isn’t anything particularly memorable about this rather lackluster revival. Understudy Matthew Risch famously replaced Christian Hoff early in previews. Hoff, who was officially let go due to a foot injury was rumored to have been less than stellar. Risch, while he can dance up a storm, is lacking in every other necessary department. The short of it: his singing is poor and he lacks charisma. Joey, even in his nature as a cad, should have that presence and personality that puts the audience in his corner. As hard as he worked, Risch couldn’t overcome that shortcoming.

Stockard Channing is making her first Broadway appearance since the 1999 revival of The Lion in Winter and should consider making a return trip sooner rather than later. Channing is a breath of fresh air, tossing off one-liners and displaying an extraordinary emotional range as Vera. Her singing is decidedly weak, and she only scores once musically with her breathless, nearly spoken but captivating delivery of “Bewitched” in the first act. She also looks better than ever and is given some choice costumes from William Ivey Long, particularly a stunning negliglee for her bedroom soliloquy. I think with her dry as a martini delivery she would be even better suited for that other Vera, Ms. Vera Charles in Mame.

Now we get to the outstanding highlight of the evening. Martha Plimpton has been busy working in so many different plays in the past few seasons, garnering Tony nominations for her in The Coast of Utopia and Top Girls. Here she surprises with strong musical chops. All you could hear at intermission were astonished patrons talking about her credible musicality. Every time Plimpton walked onstage she scored as the aging burlesque chorine Gladys Bumps (who has a history with our Pal Joey). Plimpton, who is reminiscent of a young Elaine Stritch – only with a better sense of pitch, doesn’t really have that much to do, but makes every moment worth the price of admission. Her deadpan turned the throwaway “The Flower Garden of My Heart” into an audience favorite at the top of act two. There is one major difference with this revival. The character of Melba, a superfluous but amusing diversion in the original second act is gone. Instead she has been absorbed into Gladys’ floor show which allowed Plimpton the opportunity to provide the sole showstopper of the afternoon, “Zip.” The song is a rather brilliant parody of Gypsy Rose Lee’s act, with a deconstruction of how Lee encorporated witty banter into her strip. The topical nature of the song is dated, though several of the references have been updated to less obscure figures of the 1930s.

She was the only reason I really wanted to see the show and was easily the highlight, though Channing came in a close second. The direction and choreography were underwhelming. I especially expected the dance heavy show to soar in those moments, but ultimately didn’t. The set was rather drab (and let it be said I didn’t notice that the El was a part of it until the final scene). However the costumes were wonderful and Rodgers & Hart sure gave us a fun score. If only the production itself could have bewitched rather than bother and bewilder. As I left the theatre, I couldn’t help but wish I had seen the well-received Encores! presentation of the show with Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Vicki Lewis and Bebe Neuwirth in 1995.

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