Theatre Is Easy: “Pal Joey”

Written by Theatre Is Easy

BOTTOM LINE: A traditional-feeling musical with incredible choreography and a kick-ass cast. It’s a first-rate production guaranteed to make you happy (if musicals are your sort of thing).

If the 1930s had a word for “douchebag,” that’s how one would refer to Joey Evans, the wannabe performer and club owner from whom Pal Joey gets its title. And if Evans were around today, he would no doubt pop his collar and wear a Livestrong bracelet. Joey is a tool of the highest order, but his looks and charm always help him get his way. And Matthew Risch, the new-ish actor who fell into the role (he was the understudy for Christian Hoff, who had to step out of the production during previews), knows how to make Joey devilishly cruel yet completely endearing.

Pal Joey is a musical from the early ’40s that’s been revived on Broadway a handful of times since, although until late last year it had been a few decades. (It’s based on a series of short stories written by John O’Hara that were published in The New Yorker in the ’30s.) This particular production comes from Roundabout Theatre Company, the savants behind many recent critically acclaimed musical revivals, including last season’s Sunday in the Park With George. One of the reasons Roundabout’s productions are so inspired is because they employ talents of the highest order: Pal Joey also stars Stockard Channing and Martha Plimpton and is directed by Joe Mantello of Wicked fame. I’ll stop with the name-dropping now, but suffice to say everyone who worked on Pal Joey has the chops to be collaborating with their talented peers. And with such plentiful resources, Pal Joey is a truly wonderful show.

Here’s a brief plot description, and yes, Pal Joey is a tad like the musical Chicago in that it takes place in the same city in nearly the same era. Also like Chicago, it centers on performers, making it much less awkward when the cast randomly breaks into song and dance. At the heart of the story is Joey, a womanizing crooner who’s new in town. He books his act at a local club on the south side, but he’s jonesing for something bigger — to own the club himself. After meeting and charming the pants off a socialite, Mrs. Simpson (Channing), Joey convinces her to fund his new career. She bites, but mostly because she’s bored. There are another couple of girls in the picture and Joey finds himself torn between love, loyalty, and a slew of dirty, dirty lies. Musical numbers fill in the rest.

I hadn’t seen any version of Pal Joey, either staged or filmed, until this one, because the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. I assume the show is rarely performed anymore, maybe because it’s hard to pull off without money and talent, or maybe because it’s a lesser-known schmammy musical. The music is brilliant in the moment but largely unmemorable (most famous song: “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”), and the script isn’t tight enough (these characters fall in love in the course of a ball-change and a head turn). But Richard Greenberg wrote the new book (he’s the renowned playwright of Take Me Out and Three Days of Rain), and he does a fine job honing in on the meat of the characters and creating a cohesive story.

Shortcomings aside, the revival of Pal Joey is fantastic. If this is a genre you adore, especially when it’s full of genuine charm that allows you to completely escape from the real world, then you must see this show. It runs through March 1 — you’d be a fool to miss it.

Pal Joey runs 2 hrs. 30 min. and plays at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., between 8th and 9th Ave., through March 1. Showtimes are Tue-Sat 8 PM and Wed, Sat-Sun 2 PM. Tickets are $36.50-$126.50, or $20 if you’re under 35 and a member of Hiptix. To purchase tickets call 212-719-1300, and visit paljoeyonbroadway.com for more show info.