Friday, December 19, 2008

Pal Joey: Critics Were Bewitched, Bothered Or Bewildered

Pal Joey: Critics Were Bewitched, Bothered Or Bewildered

Last evening, the latest revival of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's Pal Joey opened at Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54. The tuner is directed by Joe Mantello and features a new book by playwright Richard Greenberg. Pal Joey stars Stockard Channing, Martha Plimpton and Matthew Risch, who replaced Christian Hoff in rehearsals.

Critical response varied wildly across the board from those who were positively bewitched by the production, to those much more bothered by it all, with some bewildered reviews in between.

Praising the show as "snazzily revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company, (that) pumps much-needed fresh blood into a Broadway grown anemic," Bloomberg's John Simon is positively bewitched: "Risch has the properly improper gigolo looks and persona of Joey, singing, dancing and acting with precarious insouciance spelled by the called-for defensive arrogance. Channing is appropriately sophisticated and cynical as Vera; if her singing seems a bit too studied, it fits in with Vera’s personality. Plimpton’s Gladys is as beautifully rounded as a hard-edged dame can be.... With splendid choreography from Graciela Daniele, combining period with modern; scrupulously detailed staging by Joe Mantello; and Paul Gemignani’s expert conducting of a spirited orchestra, it would take an aged-in-the-wood curmudgeon to ask for anything more."

David Rooney of Variety is also vexed: "[W]hat makes the Roundabout revival of their 1940 show so compelling is Richard Greenberg’s trenchant adaptation of the original book by John O’Hara. Erasing the sanitizing stamp of musical-theater coyness, Greenberg brings a fascinating melancholy grubbiness to this cynical story of sordid emotional transactions and opportunistic behavior in late-1930s Chicago. It’s a dark show for desperate times, with enough dramatic meat on its bones to work even as a nonmusical play.... The good news is that while Risch is neither a top-drawer singer nor dancer, he’s doing creditable work as louche lounge lizard Joey Evans. He has the right thuggish good looks, sleazy charisma and self-assured moves to play the unscrupulous gigolo. This is not quite a star-is-born moment, but Risch understands the role of the inveterate cad and he knows how to sell it. Likewise director Joe Mantello, choreographer Graciela Daniele and set designer Scott Pask; their seamless collaboration makes this apparent the moment the curtain goes up."

Bewildered by Risch's "serviceable voice and none of the nuance needed to make Joey's amorous conquests remotely plausible," Eric Grode, who thankfully is reviewing again, now for Newark's Star Ledger, sees the pluses in the female performers: "Greenberg has radically overhauled John O'Hara's script while remaining in sync with Richard Rodgers' shrewd riffs on supper-club pop and Lorenz Hart's shiv-sharp lyrics.... Greenberg has a sharp ear for the dimestore argot favored by just about everyone else on stage.... [I]n 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,' which Channing delivers with a knowing rendition that makes up for in world-weary style what it lacks in vocal perfection. But the real surprise is Plimpton, a fixture of Broadway's more serious recent efforts (Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill in the last two years alone), who proves to be a sparkling musical theater performer, too. Greenberg and Mantello have bolstered her role considerably, and from a barn-burning rendition of 'Zip!' to a touching glimpse of envy near the end, Plimpton rewards their efforts in full."

Lamenting that the revival "seems more like grown-ups playing dress-up than gritty and cynically delicious pulp fiction," Newsday's Linda Winer comes out swinging: "There is no nice way of saying this. Matthew Risch, the understudy who stepped into the starring role when Christian Hoff reportedly was injured, is a slick and stylish hoofer, and a competent singer. But he doesn't have the wattage to make us care about Joey Evans.... Without more spark behind Joe Mantello's handsomely imagined Chicago lowlife of a production, the darkness starts to feel more dull than glittery.... Channing, as Vera, the wealthy older woman who today would be called a cougar, pulls this off with husky-voiced aristocratic earthiness, looking great in William Ivey Long's daring gowns and talk-singing her way through the music as if it were written that way. There is more unexpected delight in Plimpton, rapidly becoming one of the theater's most invaluable adventurers. Here she is fearless in a black lace corset and garters as Gladys Bumps, a sturdy been-around thug of a stripper."

Concluding that the show "is seriously undercut by the gaping hole at its center," Frank Scheck at New York Post awards just two and a half stars (out of four): "As the tough-talking, second-rate nightclub performer Gladys Bumps, Plimpton -- not exactly known for musical comedy -- is terrific, the standout attraction of the flawed revival that opened last night.... While (Risch is) a strong dancer and a fair singer, he doesn't yet have the acting chops and, more important, the charisma to make his Joey as much of a charmer as he is a heel.... Joe Mantello has provided a smooth, reasonably entertaining staging that's enhanced by the slinky, sexy choreography of Graciela Daniele.... Stockard Channing, looking impossibly young for her 64 years, is compelling as the sexually rapacious socialite Vera Simpson, even if her renditions of such classic songs as 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered' are better acted than sung."

Bothered by "Mantello's low-impact staging," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News awards just two and a half (out of five) stars: "Risch ... gets an A for effort. He's a capable singer and deft dancer and gives just the kind of performance you'd expect -- solid and professional. Period.... Under Mantello's inconsistent direction, the acting styles range from realism to broad musical comedy while tuneful Rodgers and Hart songs ... land with little impression.... (Channing's) bluesy version of 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered' aches with longing and resignation. The delightful surprise is Martha Plimpton as the street-smart showgirl Gladys. The actress debuts a robust and smoky singing voice and makes the novelty number 'Zip' (usually sung by another character) enormously entertaining."

Blasting it as a "joyless revival," The New York Times' Ben Brantley clearly feels a bit beguiled (and not in any good sense): "[N]obody, with the qualified exception of Martha Plimpton as a floozy with a grudge, emerges from this Roundabout Theater Company production covered in stardust. In shining a harsh light on the inner rot of selfish characters ... this revival has succeeded only in turning them into zombies. When Ms. Channing, as the alcoholic society matron Vera Simpson, sings the show’s most famous song, 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,' it might as well be titled 'Benumbed, Bummed Out and Bored Silly.'... Joey, a part first played by Gene Kelly, has to be the engine of the show, and that’s a challenge beyond Mr. Risch.... Ms. Channing, whose drollery is one of the greater natural resources of the New York theater, here pushes deadpan into deadness, talking and singing in a hushed, level voice as if in a trance.... But here it’s not easy to differentiate between a character’s distancing herself from her bad behavior and an actress’s distancing herself from a bad production."

The limited run revival of Pal Joey is slated to close February 15, 2009. You can read my review of Pal Joey by clicking here (I actually liked the production).

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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