Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review: Pal Joey

Bothersome and Bewildering, but Not Bewitching
By Lauren Yarger
It’s got great songs, a wonderful actress playing Vera and a pretty decently updated book, but the newest version of Pal Joey lets down rather than revives at Broadway’s Studio 54.

Stockard Channing stars as Vera Simpson, a married woman smitten with sleazy-but-charming womanizer Joey Evans (Matthew Risch) in 1930s Chicago. The problem here, is that this Joey is neither sleazy nor charming. Risch, originally the understudy, took over the role prior to the show’s opening when Christian Hoff suffered an injury and bowed out amid rumors that the show’s producers didn’t find his dancing skills up to par.

Where a triple threat is needed, however, director Joe Mantello inexplicably cast a triple so-so instead, whose singing, dancing and acting skills just aren’t ready for a powerhouse role like Joey. In past stage and screen adaptations of the Rodgers and Hart classic, Joey was played by the likes of Gene Kelley, Bob Fosse and Frank Sinatra. The character mistreats women, but is supposed to have a magnetism they find irresistible.

With Risch unable to give Joey any charisma or panache, we’re never quite sure why confident Vera, trustingly naïve shopkeeper Linda English (Jenny Fellner), vampy ex-girlfriend Gladys Bumps (Martha Plimpton in a pleasing turn) or anyone else would be attracted to the cad. Channing brings good stage presence, comedic timing and a few moments of raw emotion to a rejected Vera. You feel her pain when she grabs her drink glass for another round of “fini;” you’re just not clear why she cares so much.

When she sings one of the show’s trademark songs “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” she seems more “concerned” -- about hitting the right notes than any of the above. Channing uses her wonderful drama skills to act through her solos, reminiscent of Glynis Johns talking her way through “Send in the Clowns,” but she doesn’t have adequate vocal coaching support. Musical director Paul Gemignani also should have worked more with Plimpton (who has received acting accolades, but for whom music theater on the Broadway stage is a new venture) and Risch who both have trouble finding support for some of their notes. Fellner has the strongest singing voice of the group and Risch’s duets with her are his best vocally.

Richard Greenberg’s update of the book by John O’Hara is fresh, combining some of the original characters and shifting song assignments around. The orchestra, split above the stage on both sides, isn’t large, but sounds full. It’s always wonderful to hear Rodgers’s “I Could Write a Book,” “What is a Man” and the haunting “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” which get into your head and keep you humming them for days (the mark of a great Broadway score).

Scott Pask’s set design is noteworthy. Two rotating side stages, a tall winding staircase, minimal props and a central section nuanced with scrim and lighting (Paul Gallo) become various locales. William Ivey Long’s costumes evoke the period and Channing is bedecked, if not bewitched, in several lovely sparkling gowns.

Christians might also like to know:
• God’s name taken in vain
• Sex outside of marriage
• Show girls are scantily clad
• One character is gay and is blackmailed

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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