Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2005
I was so excited to see Pal Joey on the Ghent Playhouse schedule this season. This 1940 Rodgers and Hart classic is seldom produced – everyone sings the songs but no one stages the show. I have seen bits of the 1952 film version starring Frank Sinatra, but I had never seen the show on stage, although it was one of the scores I learned as a child. I remember my father telling me that it was considered a scandalous show when it was first produced, and that added to its allure in my eyes. I have always enjoyed theatre that provokes a strong response.
Unfortunately, director Dianne Hobden and choreographer Abby Lappen did not have the benefit of my father’s words, although how anyone doing the slightest bit of research into this show could miss the fact that it is a low and nasty show about low and nasty people is beyond me. Somehow a great deal of romance is in evidence on the Ghent stage, and romance is one thing Pal Joey definitely isn’t about.
But even with an overdose of glamour, starry-eyed gazes, and swooping Astaire-and-Rogers dance numbers, Pal Joey retains its tough exterior concealing a chest cavity as echoingly hollow as the Tin Woodsman’s. Heartless is the key word here. With the possible exception of the ingénue, Linda English, author John O’Hara has not created one likeable and good-hearted character. The central character, Joey Evans, is not even bright enough to earn the moniker of cad. He is hapless and hopeless, trading solely on luck, looks, and some sexual prowess. The plot, such as it is, centers on Joey’s attempts to make a career for himself in show business by taking advantage of various women.
Pal Joey is based on a series of short stories O’Hara wrote for the New Yorker magazine, and he has sewn together them together like Frankenstein’s monster, with large, childish stitches plainly visible to the naked eye. A major character isn’t introduced until Act II, and the show-stopping number in that Act is sung by a character who never appears before or after her star turn. Joey’s possible glimmer of real feeling for Linda is poorly and hastily represented early in Act I and then we are supposed to buy into the idea that this relationship has had some real impact on his life.
But no one goes to see Pal Joey for the scintillating dialogue, much of which is laughably dated pseudo-sanitized 1930’s tough talk (when was the last time you heard someone use the word “nuts” to describe something really great, as in “This apartment is the nuts”?) They go to hear the glorious Rodgers and Hart score.
I am on record as being a much bigger fan of Rodgers and Hart than Rodgers and Hammerstein. Not that I don’t adore the majestic melodies that Rodgers produced in his second collaboration, but the music he created to match Hart’s witty and biting lyrics is often much more fun.
And what could be more fun than hearing this wonderful score belted out by some of Columbia County’s most talented singers? I would pay big bucks any night to hear Sally McCarthy and Steven Leifer sing Rodgers and Hart. Cast here as the nefarious Gladys Bumps and Ludlow Lowell, they tear up the stage in their two second act numbers Plant You Now, Dig You Later and Do It The Hard Way. Acting-wise Leifer’s performance is annoyingly over-the-top. I felt sure that another theatre down the road must be performing Guys and Dolls and Leifer lost his way and crashed Pal Joey by mistake, but as soon as he started singing all those petty problems vanished.
Ken DeLoreto does a nice job making his singing and dancing debut in the title role. He looks the part and sounds just fine, even in comparison with the real pros. I hope he has a chance to expand his musical repertoire in future productions.
Natalie Varriale, still in her teens, is cast as the vulnerable Linda English. She is a beautiful young woman with a lovely voice. That she is a tad too young to really convey her character’s feelings is understandable. Two of her three sisters - Caroline and Monica Varriale - with whom Natalie performs and records as Forever 4, also appear in the show as sassy chorus girls. They wear blonde wigs to minimize the family resemblance, but it is easy to spot nonetheless.
Liv Cummins, well known locally for her Saturday Night LIV productions at North Pointe, has fun with the star-making second-act cameo as hard-bitten reporter Melba Snyder who performs an impromptu strip-tease while describing her interview with legendary terpsichorean ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee in the song Zip. Another solo star turn is delivered by Mark Wilson as the sleazy lounge singer Louis in the so-bad-its-good production number The Flower Garden of My Heart.
Cathy Lee Visscher plays Vera Simpson, the older, wealthy socialite who takes up with Joey and finances his nightclub venture for purely sexual reasons. Not the strongest singer on the stage, she does a nice job with Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered – complete with ALL the naughty lyrics – but I wish she had managed to put a little more lust into her performance.
Basically that is my biggest complaint with this whole production: too much romance, not enough lust. Hobden and Lappen seem to have latched on to the idea that they were staging a big, old-fashioned, pre-Oklahoma! Broadway musical, and given it the Hollywood treatment. Joey literally sweeps Linda off her feet in the first of many seriously over-choreographed dance numbers. She may be young and naïve enough to fall for his phony line, and he may be dumb enough to think he actually is suave, but that mutual confusion has nothing to do with love.
To Lappen’s credit, her choreography for the night-club numbers, which are dreadful by design, is consistently hilarious. Indeed many of the moves she has conceived for the less successful numbers are unique and inventive, but there are too many of them and they overwhelm both the forward motion of the story and the amateur dancers executing them.
This is the first Ghent musical production with their new piano and electronic keyboard, played by musical director Paul Leyden and Alex Koroleski respectively. The sound was great! My only disappointment was that they, and percussionist Devid Levow, were jammed into the stage left wing out of sight of much of the audience and the performers. I know that it is tricky getting a good sound balance with unmiked amateur singers when the band is placed between them and the audience, and this placement did allow the band to double as the Chez Joey band, but it still seemed awkward.
Bill Visscher has designed a set that basically clears the decks for Lappen’s dance numbers. Like any big Broadway show of its period Pal Joey demands a series of big, realistic sets, something that is impossible to manage in a small house on a small budget. Visscher has done a decent job of suggesting location without cluttering up the stage. While Hobden and Lappen have gone for the glamour where they shouldn’t, Visscher has stayed suitably shabby.
Joanne Maurer, a consummate professional, was obviously stretched to the limit getting this big cast outfitted with all those many costumes. Some, notably her outfits for Natalie Varriale and Cathy Lee Visscher, are fabulous, while others look hastily assembled. Allen Phelps has done his usual excellent and unobtrusive job with the lighting design.
In addition to the principals mentioned there are a pile of chorus girls and extras obviously having a blast being a part of Pal Joey. The fact that I cannot single out each one for special mention doesn’t mean that they don’t each contribute some delightful moments.
While Pal Joey is no longer as scandalous as it was in 1940, it is still Rodgers and Hart, not Rodgers and Hammerstein. This is a show about a man who uses women and about the women who use him. What are euphemistically referred to as “adult situations” abound and Hart’s lyrics are particularly wicked. If this kind of thing offends you, don’t go, and if you consider this inappropriate entertainment for young children, don’t bring them.
So, while this is not a perfect production of Pal Joey this is certainly one that delivers where it counts, vocally, and it is an excellent opportunity to see a seldom staged classic. For all of my curmudgeonly criticisms, I had a wonderful time at the show, and so did everyone else in the packed opening night house with whom I attended. I hope that many of you will take advantage of this opportunity to hear this wonderful score brought to life.
Pal Joey runs weekends April 1-17, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for teens and adults. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005