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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Studio 54


  Matthew Risch/PH: Sara Krulwich

Before there was Sammy Glick, before there was Harry Bogen, there was Joey Evans. Heels of a feather, all, with an eye for the ladies and a magnetism that drew the babes in, no matter how dastardly they were treated. And in a roundabout way, that's to say What Makes Sammy Run? and I Can Get It For You Wholesale owe a large debt to Pal Joey, the musical Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart spun from a John O'Hara novel in 1940.

It's not easy making an audience like a loathsome lothario. The original production solved that problem by entrusting the cad's role to a bright newcomer, Gene Kelly (try not liking him). The famous early fifties revival had an energetic Harold Lang as the anti- "Mr. Nice Guys Finish Last." And backstopping it all was that great score, which offered up such classics as "I Could Write a Book," "Happy Hunting Horn," "Zip," "I Still Believe in You" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

Now comes the Roundabout's middling revival of Pal Joey at Studio 54. The show's been dogged along the way by bad word of mouth. And there was the strange departure of the original Joey, Christian Hoff, he of the lame foot, to be replaced by his understudy Matthew Risch. It would be nice to say the script took a 42nd Street turn and Risch went on an unknown and came out a star. No such luck. Sure, he has a nice voice and he knows how to move. But that indescribable something is missing here. The fizz is flat. Then, there's Stockard Channing's turn as Vera Simpson, the rich, hard-living older woman, who falls in a big way for Joey. Smitten enough, in fact, to bankroll the heel's own nightclub on the Southside of Chicago. She looks great , but let's just say, her voice is limited. And given that she has to parse "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," among other numbers, that lack of vocal pow proves a significant handicap. Find a copy of the 1950 studio recording of Pal Joey and listen to Vivienne Segal (the original Vera in the 1940 production) emote on "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" to see how how it should be sung.

But, there is a silver lining in this production, namely the excellent actress Martha Plimpton ( Top Girls, The Coast of Utopia, among others). She plays the aptly named Gladys Bumps, a past her prime singer who shares a past with Joey. Who knew she had a great set of pipes, as she shows in the dazzling "Zip." Too bad, she's not around more. As for Jenny Fellner, who plays Joey's naive, but trusting girl friend, at least she has a pleasant singing voice.

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. You might not like the characters, but you can't help liking the words they sing. Long live Rodgers and Hart.


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