Adrian Aguilar and Susie McMonagle
Adrian Aguilar and Susie McMonagle Credit: Brandon Dahlquist

A rich, middle-aged socialite and a dumb but sexy young dancer exploit each other for fun and profit. Locked in a loveless marriage, the socialite wants a little something on the side; the dancer, a gold-digger with the morals of an alley cat, wants someone to pay the bills. The socialite sets the dancer up in a “love nest,” as it used to be called, and bankrolls the would-be star’s new nightclub.

It’s a standard scenario of showbiz sleaze, but in the landmark Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey, set in late-30s Chicago, there’s a twist: the socialite is a woman, the dancer a man. That role reversal is unconventional even now, when relationships between young guys and old dolls still raise eyebrows in some quarters. In 1940, when Pal Joey premiered, having a woman on top was downright perverse, if not perverted. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson called the show “odious” and decried its “depravity,” asking rhetorically, “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?”

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart weren’t trying to draw sweet water, of course. Along with book writer John O’Hara, they were consciously pushing the boundaries of the Broadway musical with a comic depiction of unscrupulous behavior at both ends of the social spectrum. Joey Evans, the dancer, is a two-bit punk whose sexual prowess compensates for his less-than-stellar stage presence; Vera Simpson is a jaded Lake Shore Drive matron who enjoys slumming. Vera finds Joey attractive precisely because he’s so far beneath her. And Joey appreciates the fact that his benefactress is as wanton and unreliable as he is.

Based on a series of shrewdly funny short stories O’Hara published in the New Yorker between 1938 and 1940, Pal Joey was a breakthrough in its time. Rodgers later boasted of the show’s “daring nature” and said, “It seemed to us that musical comedy had to [start] looking at the facts of life.” But though it paved the way for such hits as Cabaret and Chicago, Pal Joey is seldom seen today. Its score is witty, jazzy, and tuneful. But the script is patchy, despite some delicious hard-boiled dialogue. (Vera: “I have a temper, Beauty, and I want to say a few things before I lose it.” Joey: “Lose it. It’s all you got left to lose.”) A second-act plot twist involving a blackmailing talent agent comes out of nowhere, serving merely to prompt the dissolution of Vera and Joey’s arrangement.

Porchlight Music Theatre’s energetic revival compensates for the script’s shortcomings by immersing the audience in the seedy ambience of a Windy City nightclub. Punctuating scene changes with the rumble and flashing lights of passing el trains, director Michael Weber breaks down the barrier between “onstage” and “offstage” action, integrating the musical numbers into the dialogue and making the show come off as a nightclub revue—a “comedy with songs,” as Lorenz Hart intended, rather than a musical. (Unfortunately, inconsistent sound quality obscures some of the dialogue. Either mike the show or don’t, folks.) Happily, Weber restores a tune that was cut from the show during its original tryouts—Joey’s aching, tough-edged ballad “I’m Talking to My Pal,” one of Rodgers and Hart’s finest creations, which conveys Joey’s essential isolation.

Doug Peck‘s musical direction reflects the story’s squalor with tinny trumpet and heavy-handed drums (though pianist Jeremy Kahn’s preshow riffs on Rodgers and Hart standards are sublime); so do Brenda Didier’s choreography and Bill Morey’s costumes, notably in the hilarious second-act opener, “Flower Garden of My Heart,” in which a bevy of chorus girls juggle Ziegfeld Follies elegance and burlesque cheesiness.

Susie McMonagle brings a nice, nasty edge to Vera, a cynical predator who finds herself actually falling for her boy toy. McMonagle relishes Vera’s famous solo “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” with its sexually charged lyrics (“I’ll sing to him / Each spring to him / And worship the trousers that cling to him”).

Fine supporting performances come from Laura Savage as Linda, the pretty “mouse” whom Joey tries to trap; Sharriese Hamilton as club dancer Gladys Bumps; Steven Pringle as world-weary nightclub manager Mike; and Callie Johnson in a deft comic turn as Melba, a dowdy interviewer who transforms into an electrifying ecdysiast—high-class stripper—a la Gypsy Rose Lee. (Her song “Zip” is peppered with topical references that might elude viewers today, but she gets the point across.) Best of all is Matt Orlando, a perfect crook and song-and-dance man in the Anything Goes/Kiss Me, Kate/Guys and Dolls mold.

As Joey—a role created by Gene Kelly, who was whisked off to Hollywood on the strength of his performance—Adrian Aguilar sings very well. His dancing is competent but unexceptional; the male chorus dancers far outshine him. More bothersome, Aguilar—who was excellent as a self-doubting artist in Porchlight’s staging of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick . . . Boom! last year—seems too aware that his character is, well, scum. For Pal Joey‘s satire to sting, the audience needs to like Joey, just as they must like Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera or, say, Paul Newman’s “Fast Eddie” in The Hustler. Joey Evans is the hustler as American archetype; he’s an SOB, but he’s a charming SOB. Without that, Pal Joey loses its punch as a study of sex, money, and power.