Reading about the Roundabout Theatre’s new Broadway production of Pal Joey– which opened Thursday at Studio 54–put me in mind of Robert Falls’s masterful take on the same material, at the Goodman Theatre 20 years ago.
When the musical debuted in 1940, it broke new ground–and stirred controversy–with its cynical tone and seamy story, about a sexy young nightclub dancer who’s kept by a middle-aged, married Chicago society dame. The jazzy songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart have long since proved their staying power–especially “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” a wry ballad the society dame, Vera, sings about her boy toy (“I’ll sing to him/Each spring to him/And worship the trousers that cling to him/Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I”). And the role of Joey launched Gene Kelly.
But the original script–by novelist John O’Hara, based on his hilarious New Yorker stories–has proven less stageworthy, and over the years various theaters have sought to strengthen it. The Roundabout version, directed by Joe (Wicked) Mantello, features a new book by Richard (Take Me Out) Greenberg.
Back in 1988, Falls put his own spin on the show, incorporating new material from O’Hara’s original stories and adding bits of his own. In that version (featuring choreography by Ann Reinking), Joey was a big band drummer, not a dancer. He was played by Steppenwolf member Kevin Anderson, and the supporting cast included Carlin Glynn as Vera, Del Close as a gangster, Barbara Robertson as Gladys Bumps, who sings the show-stealing strip number “Zip,” and Shannon Cochran as a hard-bitten chorine. I reviewed the production as a “near-total success”
The Roundabout cast stars newcomer Matthew Risch as Joey, with Stockard Channing as Vera and Steppenwolf member Martha Plimpton the “Zip” girl.