Chicago Theater Review: PAL JOEY (Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 23, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Sassy and brassy Pal Joey is a wondrous rouser that spins the tale of a roué gone rotten in Depression-era Chicago. Porchlight Music Theatre gained the exclusive rights to Rodgers and Hart’s original 1940 version of their masterwork, and is staging a glorious revival at Stage 773 (they’ve even restored “I’m Talking to My Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Porchlight's PAL JOEY.Pal,” a brief song cut in tryouts, that nails Joey’s narcissism). Porchlight has earned the privilege: The seven-man orchestra, conducted by Jeremy Kahn, do rich justice to Rodgers’ still-hip score, Brenda Didier’s choreography bursts with period-perfect blowout dance un-routines, the casting is superb, and, well, this will be a hit to remember.

Pal Joey is the kind of Horatio Alger plot that George M. Cohan could write in his sleep: Earnest American underdog works hard and makes good. Except in Rodgers and Hart’s deadpanning version of these sardonic short stories by John O’Hara, the underdog is no plucky Little Johnny Jones. He’s Joey Evans, a womanizing cad with a foul mouth, a small brain, a big ego, and an overactive crotch: The frank O’Hara puts it all in Joey’s hard-boiled mouth: “As Walt Whitman said, `Love is a 2 by 4.'” And Joey sure doesn’t make “good.” Hiding very little talent under a lot of looks, he’ll sponge off any woman who’ll bankroll him into bed — and he’ll dump her when he clears a profit.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Porchlight's PAL JOEY.Except it doesn’t work this time. It’s 1939 and Joey has wormed his way into Mike Spear’s South Side joint where Mike warns him (in my favorite line): “Leave the drummer alone…he’s only a boy” (Steven Pringle’s deadpan, seen-it-all delivery as Mike doesn’t hurt, either). As the only headliner, hot-to-trot Joey tells terrible jokes, plays the drums, and romances the “mice” in the chorus. He also sways the particularly trusting and simple Linda English, a hopeful who yearns for Hollywood and eats its fantasies. Poor Linda falls hard for Joey’s clumsy lies about growing up rich (“My mother breeded dogs” — “Oh, I’m so sorry,” murmurs Linda), then losing it all, presumably so he can earn it on his own. It’s the American Dream, though Joey intends to cut a lot of corners.

The symbol of everything Joey covets, married socialite Vera Simpson, accidentally wanders into Mike’s gin joint. Yearning to slum it, this dynamic doyenne falls for Joey’s insults, becomes his sugar mommy, orders him to drop shop-girl Linda, sets him up in a plush love nest (“”In Our Little Den of Iniquity”), and subsidizes Chez Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Porchlight's PAL JOEY.Joey, his fantasy dream North Side club,  its dubious glamor conveyed in a “dream ballet” delivered three years before Agnes DeMille’s famous choreography in Oklahoma!

Of course Joey overplays his hand, allows Vera to be black-mailed by the venal double agent Ludlow Lowell, and, worse, flings her age in her face (an “old rich mouse”). Stylishly as always, Vera kicks him out on his busy tush. But, neither sadder nor wiser, Joey resumes his old con game, taking the el train into a well-deserved oblivion.

In the two and a half hours of Michael Weber’s’ pizzazz-packed staging you can taste hard-hoofing Joey’s all-American hunger for the big time, enough to eagerly wait for him to blow it. Though it’s almost a drag to spend so much time with a jerk who Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Porchlight's PAL JOEY.never learns from his overreaching, there ”are a lot of Joeys out there” (not all of them hetero). Lorenz Hart sure knew the territory. So does Weber.

After all, he found Adrian Aguilar to play this oily confidence boy: Joey’s “What Do I Care for a Dame” marks him for the charming louse he’s bound to be. As too-trusting Linda, Laura Savage ingenuously plays Joey’s perfect victim, never more warmly than in their sweetly sentimental duet “I Could Write a Book.” In contrast, Susie McMonagle’s Vera — the original “cougar” — makes an equally poised and suave nemesis for Joey’s hubris and her “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” perfectly conveys the conflict between face and fraud that Joey triggers until Vera and Linda “Take Him” at the end.

Matt Orlando has larcenous fun as Lowell, a Chicago crook who quickly outstays his welcome in the protracted second act. Lowell’s abetting chorus girl Gladys Bumps, who mistrusts Joey on sight, is played by the all-singing, all-dancing, all-knowing, Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Porchlight's PAL JOEY.all-wisecracking Sharriese Hamilton. Perhaps the evening’s biggest tour-de-force is the transformation of Melba, a mousy reporter who never takes notes because they get in the way of her story, into the all-revealing incarnation of pseudo-intellectual stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the marvelous show-stopper, “Zip.” Callie Johnson brings down the house.

The ensemble just triples the fun, as in the chorus girls’ clumsy Ziegfeld imitation, “The Flower Garden of My Heart,” sung with Burlesque bravado by Jim Heatherly, or the burlesque ballad “That Terrific Rainbow.” My favorite, “You Mustn’t Kick It Around” (which is also a warning to critics about bad-mouthing this show) suddenly turns the skuzzy South Loop Club into a Chicago Copacabana. Pal Joey is SO worth seeing. As the song says, “Plant You Now, Dig You Later.”

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Porchlight's PAL by Brandon Dahlquist

Pal Joey
Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773
scheduled to end on May 26, 2013
for tickets, call 773.327.5252
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