Reptile Dysfunction

Written by Leonard Jacobs on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Although this may seem counterintuitive, any actor in the title role of Pal Joey, the classic Broadway musical that Roundabout Theatre Company is offering in a sparkling revival, needn’t hoof like Gene Kelly, who originated the role on stage, or croon like Frank Sinatra, who starred in the 1957 film. But he must be ready to convey Joey as a heel, hustler and hellion, an impossibly handsome, charismatic Lothario. He must be a passably slick song-and-dance man, but moreover, he must be believable as one who, as per the storyline, acquires and discards women and nightclub gigs like the food at last night’s banquet. He must be the sun, and we must be the planets.

It was widely reported that when Christian Hoff, the Tony-winner first cast as Joey in this revival, left the show due to a foot injury—or so goes the party line— Roundabout promoted a 27-year-old understudy, Matthew Risch, to the title role.This is in the long tradition of understudies getting their big break, and as always it’s the actor’s moment to sink or swim. Risch, however, bobs. 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. He’s still learning the flute.

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.Watch Stockard Channing as Vera Simpson, the wealthy older society dame who tethers Joey to her bosom like a ruby on a brooch. Her spot-on acting—the book has been wittily redone by Richard Greenberg, based on the original by John O’Hara, who penned the stories in The New Yorker that inspired the show—proves that this stage veteran’s gifts continue to radiate.

Channing’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” one of Pal Joey’s indelible ballads, equally embraces brass and rue, a glass of bitters on the eve of a love hangover.

To the degree Joey has one, his heart is never uncleaved; so the parallel love story involving him and shop-girl Linda English, nicely essayed by Jenny Fellner, gives Pal Joey its human touch. Like most else about his staging of this revival, director Joe Mantello arranges their scenes cleverly. Joey and Linda’s first duet, “I Could Write a Book,” not only sharpens their characters but also allows Hart’s lyrics to pop and crackle.

I could kvell over other elements—William Ivey Long’s subversively comic costumes, some sublime Graciela Daniele choreography.

But if Risch represents one end of the spectrum, Martha Plimpton—in the role of Gladys, the aging, sophistication-challenged showgirl—represents the other. Sassy, pissy Gladys is powered with enough enmity toward Joey to light up Cleveland.Their back story, after all, is the plot point that brings Pal Joey, which first opened on Broadway back in 1940, to its uncharacteristically cloudy end.

Plimpton’s big song is “Zip,” one of the best strip songs ever written, a punny wordfest that recalls the era when Gypsy Rose Lee stood unsheathed as queen of the vaudeville ecdysiasts.When Plimpton presses her sultry, gimlet-flavored alto into service, Pal Joey stops cold as she turns up the atmosphere into flames.That’s how it’s done, Mr. Risch— teaming technique with the totally tantalizing.

The flute is in your hands.The snake awaits.

Pal Joey
Through Mar. 1. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. (betw. Broadway & 8th Ave.); times vary, $36.50-126.50