Friday, December 19, 2008

Pal Joey

GRADE: B-

Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, book adapted by Richard Greenberg from John O'Hara. Directed by Joe Mantello. Choreographed by Graciela Daniele. Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. (CLOSED)

That this famously troubled, much-anticipated revival of Rodgers & Hart's legendary 1940 musical has won as many champions and defenders as it has—with Variety, AP, and Bloomberg leading the charge—might be considered a triumph, given the negative advance buzz and a resounding slam from the NY Times' Ben Brantley. The elevation of understudy Matthew Risch into the lead role after Christian Hoff's injury ramped up speculation of a catastrophe. But while most critics do find Risch a less-than-ideal leading man—saving their praise for female costars Stockard Channing, Jenny Fellner, and above all Martha Plimpton—a fair number are seduced by director Joe Mantello's noir-ish conception and Richard Greenberg's snappy script revision. But what the show's champions see as a deliciously seamy vision, a chorus of detractors finds simply dingy and dull.


Variety A
(David Rooney) The Rodgers and Hart songs in “Pal Joey” are certainly easy on the ear, but what 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. And like “Cabaret” a few years back, it seems right at home in the decadent former playpen of Studio 54...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. ...The smoke-drenched, seamy world of this smart adult musical is intoxicating.

Bloomberg News A
(John Simon) Pumps much-needed fresh blood into a Broadway grown anemic...Richard Greenberg contributes a sleek new book to the top-notch Rodgers and Hart score...Unusual for revised books of classic musicals, the period (1940) and locale (Chicago) have been idiomatically retained and nothing has been mucked up...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...Too bad that Studio 54 couldn’t revert to its initial nightclub format for “Joey,” but let us not ask for egg in our beer. 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.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) Greenberg's rewrite is crisp and to the point. There is a hard-boiled briskness to his work, a film-noir sensibility in its punchy dialogue that ricochets lickety-split across the stage. That dialogue, under Joe Mantello's fast-paced direction, is handled with ease, particularly by its three leads, Stockard Channing, Martha Plimpton and, in the title role, Matthew Risch...The understudy acquits himself well, particularly during choreographer Graciela Daniele's club numbers. A fine dancer, Risch...has a boyish energy, a sexy confidence tinged with more than a little naughtiness.

Total Theater A
(Simon Saltzman) There is a lot to praise and be thankful for in this smartly refreshed and snappily staged production under the direction of Joe Mantello...Considering the age of the musical and the tendency in its time for musical numbers to stand noticeably apart from the book portion, Greenberg has done a terrific job in masking and integrating that structure. He has emphasized the most brittle and caustic aspects of the story while grounding the musical’s not-too-likeable characters in their own sociopathic reality...The decision to go with Risch was a wise one. Good-looking and a splendid dancer, he gives every indication that his already convincing performance will continue to grow...Supporting performances are all solid and complete this gritty if not pretty picture of O’Hara’s morally corrupt world.

CurtainUp A-
(Elyse Sommer) The amazing Plimpton sends sparks flying as she bumps, grinds and sings with the other girls of the latest incarnation of Pal Joey...Fortunately, there are plenty of other reasons to see and enjoy this latest musical incarnation of John O'Hara's epistolary stories about an ambitious hustler on the fringes of show business. For starters, Stockard Channing is deliciously bitchy but also "bewitched, bothered and bewildered" ...Without sanitizing Joey as the movie starring Frank Sinatra did, Greenberg has made it easier to see how the crude, cocky heel at the show's center is somehow both attractive and repellent, as innocent as he is exploitative...High on the list of reasons this Pal Joey is worth seeing is that it's a big, handsome musical that benefits from director Joe Mantello's ability to introduce a Sondheim flavor to to a musical from a by-gone era.

Theatermania A-
(David Finkle) If anyone is putting a song across better on Broadway right now than Stockard Channing as she explores the tarnished heart of the great Lorenz Hart-Richard Rodgers number "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," in the Roundabout's Theatre Company's highly entertaining revival of Pal Joey at Studio 54, I don't know about it...This moment...turns out to be only one of the satisfying delights in a production that experienced some mighty touch-and-go moments getting this far...Itemizing the many other Pal Joey pluses makes for a joyful pastime. At the top of the list is the Rodgers and Hart score...Greenberg's other major, if seemingly unnecessary, re-working of the O'Hara script was to add a gay sub-plot regarding nightclub manager Mike (Robert Clohessy), which isn't very O'Hara but is very much Greenberg. Still, there's little harm done to this evergreen musical gem.

Backstage B+
(David A. Rosenberg) This is a revival of Pal Joey in the style of film noir: angry, dark, cynical, acerbic, and paranoid...Furnished with a tough new book by Richard Greenberg, directed by Joe Mantello as if it were Chicago, and tentatively choreographed by Graciela Daniele, Pal Joey is back in a production that, although it can't quite make up its mind what it wants to be and is too remote to be engaging, still manages to find the brash undertones of a fabled, always troubled creation. And, oh, that witty, melodic, still-fresh score!

American Theatre Web B+
(Andy Propst) Matthew Risch, who stepped in at the last moment to play Joey Evans, is certainly well on his way to owning this starring role, but as of press performances, he seems a little unsteady on his feet in this production, which features Richard Greenberg's generally satisfying revision to John O'Hara's original book and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's unbeatable score, and which emphasizes the unsavoriness of the world in which Joey works and lives...While theatergoers most likely would have expected Channing to dazzle as Vera, nothing could have prepared them for the two performances that are revelations in "Joey." Martha Plimpton, a mainstay of the New York stage in dramatic roles, makes her debut in a musical here and is simply captivating...Equally impressive is Jenny Fellner, who's been seen in smaller roles on Broadway, but here plays the sweet ingénue.

Hollywood Reporter B+
(Alexis Greene) Stockard Channing steals the new Broadway revival of "Pal Joey," Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's 1940 musical noir about Chicago nightlife...Channing brings sleekness, wit and sexual suggestiveness...The production itself, imaginatively and forcefully directed by Joe Mantello...will draw both fervid supporters and adamant naysayers. John O'Hara's book (adapted from his own short stories for "The New Yorker") has been rewritten by Richard Greenberg...mostly for the better...To everyone's credit, this is a far sexier and more adult "Pal Joey" than its creators dared present back in 1940 or for the first major revival in 1952...But this is a bleak, harsh world that director Mantello has staged beneath Chicago's looming elevated train. If Risch would just loosen up and roll back the hard sell, this fresh revival of Rodgers and Hart's innovative musical could be a hit.

NY1 B+
(David Cote) The Roundabout Theatre Company gets a lot right with its handsome revival of the jazzy classic - just not the guy on the marquee...If “Pal Joey” has a weak center, the glitter at the fringes is plenty engaging. Richard Greenberg's rewrite of the John O'Hara book flashes with keen wit and shadows of melancholy, raises the emotional stakes for each character and avoids O'Hara's more formulaic plot devices. Choreographer Graciela Daniele keeps the cast bumping and high stepping with jazzy dances. Martha Plimpton makes a sizzling musical theater debut as the jaded singer Gladys Bumps, dryly unzipping Lorenz Hart's perfectly packaged rhymes...Although “Pal Joey” is not a Broadway masterpiece on the level of “West Side Story” or “Guys And Dolls,” but it is a sophisticated showcase of old-fashioned glamor and wit.

Philadelphia Inquirer B+
(Howard Shapiro) Greenberg's new book gives Joey, his society sugar mama (a dead-on Stockard Channing), and even the play's one decent character - the girl who wants to believe in his potential as a long-term catch - glib repartee that's more like a laugh-line thread than comic relief. Joe Mantello's direction...accentuates this characteristic of the revival - nasty talk with a chuckle...[Risch's] Joey displays an arrogance as threatening as it is magnetic, and his lizardlike smile reminds that some things in Pal Joey must never change.


USA Today B+
(Elysa Gardner) Greenberg also gives us fuller portraits of the women in Joey's life...All three are sturdily and sympathetically represented under Joe Mantello's witty direction...The real revelation, though, is Martha Plimpton's Gladys...As for Risch, who replaced original lead Christian Hoff (after Hoff sustained a foot injury in late November), he has no shortage of talent or charisma, but at 27 seems a little green for Joey. Rodgers and Hart's songs, of course, remain as glorious as ever...Gems such as "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "I Could Write a Book" still have a cool fire that fits Pal Joey, this incarnation in particular, like a glove.

New Yorker B+
(John Lahr) The scenic and narrative gains of this production bring with them some losses...The dance establishes the internal and external geography of the piece, but does it skew it? This leaching of charm out of the atmosphere, and, subsequently, out of the man, may be up to the minute, but it robs the character of some of his complexity...Greenberg’s new book, it seems to me, superbly sets up the drama of the songs and of Joey’s atrophied soul.

NY Press B+
(Leonard Jacobs) He may dance angelically and sing swell, he may hawk beady eyes and raise smirky smiles, but Risch’s Joey isn’t the snake charmer that Pal Joey demands...How nifty that Pal Joey also manages to be one of the most chic enterprises Roundabout has mounted in a long time. There’s an actual orchestra at Studio 54! And Paul Gemignani’s musical direction of the score, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, illustrates what an incandescent, melodic knockout it remains. Risch also receives the kind of thespian support that underscores the generosity of the theater.

Back Stage (blog) B+
(David Sheward) I was pleasantly surprised to find Risch was everything Joey must be--a dynamite dancer, a charming romeo, and a first-class heel. The only area where he was lacking was in the vocal department, but Joey is more of a dancing role...Joe Mantello's production is pure film noir with Scott Pask's menacing set dominated by grim elevated train tracks. As Vera Simpson, Joey's alcoholic patroness, Stockard Channing is so cutting and martini-dry, she draws blood from the other characters and tears from the audience...Martha Plimpton is another performer we don't usually see in musicals. Yet she scores a bull's eye with the tough-talking showgirl Gladys.

New York B
(Jesse Oxfield) It's pleasingly consistent with the classic backstage story to report that a major singing-and-dancing talent has arrived—except that it’s not Risch. It's the heretofore serious actress Martha Plimpton...Everything else in this well-conceived, timely revival is dark, dangerous, and dry.

NJ Star-Ledger B
(Eric Grode) Broadway loves an "understudy makes good" story, but for every Shirley MacLaine or Sutton Foster...there are at least a dozen jobbers who hit their marks, take their bow and slide back into obscurity...Such is the case with Risch, a young dancer with a lovely smile, a serviceable voice and none of the nuance needed to make Joey's amorous conquests remotely plausible. Vera's sung summation of Joey as a "half-pint imitation" hits distressingly close to the mark here...The real surprise is Plimpton...who proves to be a sparkling musical theater performer.

New York Post B
(Frank Scheck) I'm pleased to report that a musical-comedy star is born in the newly revived "Pal Joey." Unfortunately for the Roundabout, it's Martha Plimpton and not Matthew Risch, the chorus boy recently bumped up to the title role...Working with a new book by Richard Greenberg (which differs only slightly from John O'Hara's original, while making one of the characters blatantly gay), director 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.

Hartford Courant B
(Malcolm Johnson) The songs are great, the book is much improved and the women deliver, especially the astonishing Martha Plimpton. But there is no Cinderfella story for Matthew Risch, the understudy who took over the title role in "Pal Joey"...The production by Joe Mantello, which the Roundabout Theatre Company opened Thursday at Studio 54, resonantly evokes Chicago in the late '30s when the partnership of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was coming to an end. But this troubled musical, which originally starred Gene Kelly as the nightclub owner/gigolo Joey Evans, has not yet found the production so often dreamed of through the years.

The Record C+
(Robert Feldberg) Hard to warm up to...The production does have some nice things in it, starting with an atmospheric dance sequence performed during the overture. Director Joe Mantello blends one scene into the next, creating an uninterrupted flow of action; Graciela Daniele's choreography has a pleasing period flavor; and the orchestrations evoke the musical sound of the late '30s. The story, though, is a downer....While a capable dancer and singer, [Risch] doesn't make Joey at all appealing...The show's score, overall, is not distinguished.

Newsday C+
(Linda Winer) Despite a smart creative team and game performances from Stockard Channing and the ever-more-surprising Martha Plimpton, the Roundabout Theatre Company production that opened last night at Studio 54 seems more like grown-ups playing dress-up than gritty and cynically delicious pulp fiction. 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 a bad-boy Joey we can't help but adore, the women around him are less than fabulously interesting. Without more spark behind Joe Mantello's handsomely imagined Chicago lowlife of a production, the darkness starts to feel more dull than glittery.

EW C+
(Thom Geier) Though Risch works up an impressive flop sweat—literally mopping up the perspiration from his face with an ill-disguised cloth during one early scene—his efforts still have the whiff of flop about them...Risch is never less than professional, but his costars must struggle to compensate for his shortcomings in this tricky story: Jenny Fellner, as the bumpkin-in-the-big-city ingenue, fails to convince us why she'd hang around for a nogoodnik like Joey; Stockard Channing, as the cougar and sugar mama who falls for Joey and finances his nightclub, is thin of voice but touchingly acts her way through classic songs like "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered;" and Martha Plimpton, as an aging showgirl punished for knowing too much about Joey's shady past, is a surprisingly strong singer who comfortably sells her second-act charmer, "Zip."

The Daily News C
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Casting a boyish near-beginner as a die-hard heel is but one issue in Joe Mantello's low-impact staging, which has a book by Richard Greenberg (seamier than John O'Hara's original) and efficient dances by Graciela Daniele. Under Mantello's inconsistent direction, the acting styles range from realism to broad musical comedy while tuneful Rodgers and Hart songs - from "I Could Write a Book" to "You Mustn't Kick It Around" - land with little impression...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...Revivals of Rodgers and Hart's dark-toned show don't come around that often. Unfortunately, this "Pal" doesn't inspire a friendlier welcome.

Theatre News Online C
(Roger B. Harris) The fizz is flat...Director Joe Mantello keeps the show moving along at a nice pace while choreographer Graciela Daniele's work is merely adequate. In this instance, jiggling, wriggling chorines, do not a pretty sight make. Richard Greenberg has streamlined and updated the book, which isn't necessarily a good thing. The air is too heavy with innuendo. Scott Pask's set, William Ivey Long's costumes and Paul Gallo's lighting do not get in the way, which I guess is a plus. What is a definite plus is the chance to hear that fabulous score once again on stage.

Talkin' Broadway D+
(Matthew Murray) [Greenberg's libretto] is less a full-blown rewrite than a mild reconsideration, in no way a curb-kicking of the original...The contributions of the rest of the creative team are lethargic at best. Designers Scott Pask (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), Paul Gallo (lights), choreographer Graciela Daniele, and especially director Joe Mantello have aided neither Greenberg’s script nor Rodgers and Hart’s score in finding their own natural, down-and-dirty rhythm. Rather than exploring the dangers and complexities of Joey and Vera’s pairing against the musty glitter of Chicago nightlife, they’ve tried to change Pal Joey into a makeshift Cabaret by swathing it in darkness, squalor, and self-promoting grit...Daniele’s rancidly greasy choreography is similarly more an approximate afterthought than a necessary element.

The New York Times D+
(Ben Brantley) Featuring the gifted but misused Stockard Channing and a streamlined but innuendo-heavy book by Richard Greenberg (after the original by John O’Hara), this “Pal Joey” has no detectable pulse...Nobody, 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 who first appeared in short stories by O’Hara for The New Yorker, 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”...Watching the cast go through its motions is like watching a “Marat/Sade” in which the asylum inmates have been pumped full of Thorazine.

AM New York D
(Matt Windman) This revival is bewitched, bothered, bewildered and bad!...27-year-old Mr. Risch lacks not only charm, but also credibility. He sweats profusely and looks too hard at work handling all the hoofing to successfully interact with the cast. He also appears too effeminate to play such a manipulative conman. His co-star Stockard Channing has a bigger problem: she has absolutely no vocal chops. She speaks through all of her songs, turning great ballads like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” into slow, painful marches. If not much else, Channing has the commanding stage presence that Risch desperately lacks. The fabulously talented Martha Plimpton steals the show as chorine Gladys Bumps...The blame for this revisal should lie with playwright Richard Greenberg, whose overhaul of John O’Hara’s original script with new character motives is uninvolving and awkward, and director Joe Mantello for making so many poor artistic choices. Graciela Daniele’s serviceable choreography works best when it parodies bad nightclub staging.

Wall Street Journal D
(Terry Teachout) The Roundabout, as best as I can figure, has decided to sell "Pal Joey" by selling it out. In this production, directed by Joe Mantello and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, the show is retrofitted as a glossy school-of-Fosse extravaganza. The fancy sets and showy steps, while pleasing enough in their own right, have little to do with the seedy, sordid world that O'Hara conjured out of thin air in his very first stage direction...Richard Greenberg, one of my least favorite contemporary playwrights, has rewritten O'Hara's book from curtain to curtain, replacing his sharp-eared dialogue with lame, campy punch lines and smoothing out the rough edges of the plot in a way that is alien to the flint-hearted spirit of the real "Pal Joey."

Village Voice D-
(Michael Feingold) The new book, by Richard Greenberg, does little harm, although nothing was wrong with John O'Hara's original book that a few minor emendations couldn't fix. Almost everything else, however, is just plain awful...Granted, Martha Plimpton's Gladys can put over a song; Stockard Channing's Vera doesn't exactly wreck hers; and Matthew Risch, the understudy who replaced Christian Hoff, dances pretty well and gives the role the understudy's traditional brave try...The evening's marginally more bearable than the Roundabout's scorched-earth rendering of the team's Boys From Syracuse a few years back, but that's the best compliment their holiday gift can extort from me.

Variety A 13; Bloomberg News A 13; Associated Press A 13; Total Theater A 13; CurtainUp A- 12; Theatermania A- 12; Backstage B+ 11; American Theatre Web B+ 11; THR B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; Philly Inquirer B+ 11; USA Today B+ 11; New Yorker B+ 11; NY Press B+ 11; Back Stage blog B+ 11; New York B 10; New York Post B 10; NJ Star-Ledger B 10; Hartford Courant B 10; The Record C+ 8; Newsday C+ 8; EW C+ 8; The Daily News C 7; Theatre News Online C 7; Talkin' Broadway D+ 5; The New York Times D+ 5; AM New York D 4; WSJ D 4; Village Voice D- 3; TOTAL: 274 / 29 = 9.45 (B-)

1 comment:

William Boot said...

Isn't "aged-in-the-wood curmudgeon" a perfect descriptor of John Simon? Perhaps that's his joke and not mine, but I do find it funny.