Goodman Theatre

When Pal Joey opened on Broadway in 1940, it was a controversial breakthrough: not only because of the show’s adult tone and seamy subject matter, but because (in the words of New York Herald-Tribune critic Richard Watts Jr.) it was “the only Broadway girl-and-music show I can recall in which the book has enough narrative power to stand by itself.” In reviving the work for the Goodman Theatre, director Robert Falls has sought to enhance the script in order to meet contemporary audiences’ expectations, while at the same time preserving the show’s appeal as a lavish and lively entertainment. His near-total success on both counts makes Pal Joey a masterful evening of musical theater.

The show, with its taut script by John O’Hara, based on his New Yorker magazine stories, and swinging, scintillating score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, is a classic tale of show-biz sleaziness: a sexy and ambitious young dancer, possessed of loose morals and limited brain power, comes from the Ohio boondocks to Chicago in search of fame and fortune. The dancer is soon picked up by a rich, middle-aged, married society figure. The relationship is mutually beneficial in the short run: the society figure acquires a pretty plaything for pleasure on the side, and the dancer gets an “Investor” to pay the bills. But when the two are threatened by blackmailers, the society figure dumps the’ dancer without a qualm; sex is sex and money is money, and one does have one ‘s priorities.

It’s a case study in sexual and class exploitation–except that the dancer is a man and the society figure a woman. In this tale of sexual perversity in Chicago, every typical role is reversed. Joey Evans, the dancer with dreams of glory and an ego ill suited to his modest talents, is a “dumb broad” who happens to be male. Vera Simpson, the bread tycoon’s wife who discovers Joey in a crummy south side joint and sets him up in his own swanky nightclub, is not just a bored matron but a dominant, sexually aggressive wielder of considerable, and traditionally masculine, power. (Vera makes two telephone calls during the show. One is to the police and one is to the bank–she controls them both.)

Joey is a heel, a punk, a pill who’ll step on or sleep with anyone to get ahead. But he’s also a sex toy–“useless by day, handy by night,” as Vera sings in “What Is a Man?” Joey and Vera both inhabit fantasy worlds: he pretends he’s a star and she pretends he loves her. The difference is that, unlike Joey, Vera knows the setup is only make-believe. She ought to; she paid for it.

The inversion of standard sexual power roles is driven home repeatedly in O’Hara’s script. “He’s only a boy, and we want to keep him looking that way,” Vera purrs to the tailor as she orders Joey’s new suits. (It’s no accident that Paul Henry Thompson plays the tailor as the eunuchlike obsequious homosexual of so many 1940s plays and movies.) Later, even more cuttingly, Vera sits down to talk business with another woman and sends Joey off to the bedroom: “Go try on one of your new frocks.”

It should be noted that Falls has made substantial revisions in the text–restructuring some dialogue, inserting material from O’Hara’s original stories and from early drafts of the play, and adding a few bits of his own. But the revisions simply serve to highlight the caustic view of sexual politics that was already discreetly present in O’Hara’s script and Hart’s lyrics.

This view is not restricted to the Joey-Vera affair. In fact, Pal Joey is constructed as a series of encounters between Joey and different women. In every case, Joey comes up short: against the predatory Vera; against Gladys Bump, the tough chorine who’s on to Joey from the start; against Melba, the prim-looking, tough-as-nails gossip columnist; and against Linda, the “nice girl” Joey seduces and then dumps in favor of Vera. Linda’s role is the most fully rethought in Falls’s new script: originally someone Joey met on the street, here she is a dancer in the club where Joey works. Though sweet and sincere, she’s hardly naive; when she succumbs to Joey’s seduction–and, later, when she relinquishes her “old jalopy” to Vera–it’s clear she knows just what she’s doing.

What is the point of all this? Is Pal Joey just an exercise in misogyny and trendy cynicism? Far from it: the theme of the show is the need for honesty, in one’s work life and one’s love life. Compulsively boastful and extremely insecure behind his macho bravado, Joey is thoroughly dishonest in his dealings with women (and with himself), and that is his undoing. A more honest man would accept his interlude with Vera for what it is; Joey is unable to do that, and so he forces Vera to dump him hard rather than gently, as she is initially inclined.

This theme is reinforced by Falls’s treatment of the all-woman chorus, a collection of talented, individualistic singer-dancers whose professionalism and stylishness contrast sharply with Joey’s crassness as crooner and comedian (“Nice to make your acquaintance,” he jokes to Vera’s meat-products mogul friends, Mr. Swift and Mr. Armour. “It’s not often that we meat packers get together”). Eschewing the obvious idea of making the chorus girls dizzy dummies, Falls and choreographers Ann Reinking and Chet Walker have devised a series of dazzling song-and-dance routines that wittily reflect the action of the play (even though they aren’t directly connected to it–this is, after all, a pre-Oklahoma! show; the use of music to convey psychological development, which we now take for granted, was several years off when Pal Joey was written). In “You Mustn’t Kick It Around,” for instance, the girls dish the newly arrived Joey while rehearsing–an elaborate fan dance with deceptive casualness; “Do It the Hard Way” illuminates the standoff between honest, hard-working Linda and crooked, cynical Gladys in some dynamite competitive tap dancing; the gaudily campy “Flower Garden of My Heart” spoofs the vice-and-virtue production numbers contrived to appeal to men’s libidos and sentimentality simultaneously, and the hallucinatory, chillingly erotic “That Terrific Rainbow” parallels the sexually charged, slightly kinky confrontation between Joey and Vera. Joey himself joins the girls for “Happy Hunting Horn,” a lewd ode to cocksmanship that here recalls Cabaret’s “Two Ladies.” (If, indeed, the dance staging owes a clear debt to the late Bob Fosse–“That Terrific Rainbow” in particular evokes the lurid intensity of Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender” or Cabaret’s “Mein Herr”–that doesn’t detract from the sizzling energy or sensuous sculptural designs of this, Reinking’s musical-comedy choreographic debut.)

Joey’s songs have also been staged with an ironic eye. “I Could Write a Book,” a lilting and lovely boy-meets-girl ballad, is here sung by Joey as he disrobes Linda (occasionally checking out his own appearance in the mirror behind her back); the song’s gracefulness is betrayed by the conquest-minded singer’s intent, and the harsh, slightly disgusted way he tosses Linda’s dress to the floor speaks volumes about his own conflicted sexuality: “Den of Iniquity,” Vera and Joey’s playful ode to adultery, is played with a dark streak of self-hating masochism that reinforces our awareness of just who’s paying for that little love nest.

Kevin Anderson, singing in a melodious baritone and looking a little like Frank Sinatra, plays Joey as a pelvis thrusting, fist-jabbing colt whose insistent coarseness undercuts his own attractiveness; it’s an effective, risky interpretation. Katherine Meloche, a believable (and not conventionally pretty) Linda, conveys a touching genuineness in her beautifully sung performance. Carlin Glynn is a handsome and elegant presence as Vera, and is warmly received by the audience; but, especially compared to the production’s unorthodox handling of the rest of the score, Glynn’s reading of the hit song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is far too bland for my taste.

In what are essentially cameos, Del Close plays Joey’s double-crossing agent with a bilious edge of creepy criminality, and Barbara E. Robertson takes the role of Melba, who pays tribute to Gypsy Rose Lee in the name-dropping striptease number “Zip.”

The real star of the show–just as “supporting actor” Joel Grey turned into the real star of the Broadway Cabaret 20-odd years ago–is Shannon Cochran as Gladys, the front woman in the chorus line. Cochran is simply spectacular, inhabiting every production number with nonchalant perfection. The chorus as a whole is a dynamic singing-dancing ensemble, embodying the show’s concerns with the search for excellence and realness in art and in life.

Thomas Lynch’s magnificent, larger-than-life art deco sets–bus station, nightclub, penthouse apartment, and clothing store, backed by a dreamlike 1940s Chicago skyline–are beautifully lit by Michael S. Philippi. Martin Pakledinaz concocted the seemingly endless array of eye-popping period costumes. The only weak link in an otherwise technically perfect show is the erratic sound, which overmagnifies the soloists while obscuring the choral vocals. Kevin Stites conducts the crackling pit band, with lush and brassy orchestrations by David Siegel that make us freshly appreciate the astounding prolificity of Richard Rodgers’s composing skills.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Osgood.