How did a racy little ditty about girl-chasing turn into a dirge? In Joe Mantello’s joyless revival of “Pal Joey,” the Rodgers and Hart classic from 1940, which opened Thursday night at Studio 54, the amoral title character performs “Happy Hunting Horn,” a number about the pursuit of the skirt, with all the glee and cockiness of a man who hears not a tooting horn but a tolling bell.
The song’s customary canter slows to a crawl as Joey the gigolo (played by the newcomer Matthew Risch), looking desperate, stands on a winding staircase that definitely doesn’t lead to paradise, as chorus girls in black veils undulate wearily below. I suppose you could interpret the scene as a ruthless exploration of the empty, unhappy soul of our hedonistic hero. But it might just as easily be evidence of a production in mourning for its own lifelessness. Featuring the gifted but misused Stockard Channing and a streamlined but innuendo-heavy book by Richard Greenberg (after the original by John O’Hara), this “Pal Joey” has no detectable pulse.
The vultures of Broadway — those kindly creatures who perk up at the first scent of a turkey carcass — have been circling “Pal Joey” since it was announced late last month that its original leading man, the Tony-winning Christian Hoff, had injured his foot and would be replaced by his understudy, Mr. Risch. It would be most satisfying to report that Mr. Risch has pulled a Shirley MacLaine. (She stepped in for an ailing Carol Haney in “The Pajama Game” half a century ago and soared to fame.)
But nobody, with the qualified exception of Martha Plimpton as a floozy with a grudge, emerges from this Roundabout Theater Company production covered in stardust. In shining a harsh light on the inner rot of selfish characters who first appeared in short stories by O’Hara for The New Yorker, this revival has succeeded only in turning them into zombies. When Ms. Channing, as the alcoholic society matron Vera Simpson, sings the show’s most famous song, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” it might as well be titled “Benumbed, Bummed Out and Bored Silly.”
Like its caddish protagonist, an ambitious nightclub hoofer with a bad case of satyriasis, “Pal Joey” is known for breaking hearts. Though it features one of the most delectable scores of any American musical, and some of the wittiest lyrics, it has tended to disappoint when staged in recent years. (Let’s not even discuss the punches-pulling 1957 film version, starring Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth.) The last major Broadway revival, in 1976, belly-flopped. And several subsequent hopeful-sounding out-of-town productions never made it to Manhattan.
The show’s problem isn’t so much what Brooks Atkinson suggested in The New York Times 68 years ago, when he asked of the original production, “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” True, none of the characters in “Pal Joey” is particularly likable, unless you count its kick-me good-girl ingénue (a thankless part, here played by Jenny Fellner).
But neither are most of the folks in later (and successfully revived) musicals like “Sweeney Todd” and “Chicago.” It can even be argued, as Richard Rodgers wrote in The Times, that “Pal Joey” was the work that “forced the entire musical comedy theater to wear long pants for the first time.” Certainly, its deglamorizing portrait of show business in Depression-era Chicago anticipated the decadent seediness conjured by “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”
Mr. Mantello and his creative team would appear to have had both of those shows on their minds in shaping the sensibility of this “Joey.” Scott Pask’s black-framework set (which pays homage to the El tracks), Paul Gallo’s film-noir lighting and William Ivey Long’s tarty nightclub costumes might easily do duty for a “Cabaret” and “Chicago” double bill. And Graciela Daniele’s choreography for the chorines, replete with jaded wriggling pelvises and writhing arms, definitely owes a debt to the Bob Fosse of “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity.”
Still, unless it is embodied with energy and original style, decadence is hardly divine from a spectator’s point of view. I’m assuming the numbness in this “Pal Joey” is deliberate, that Mr. Mantello wants to show down-and-outers who, at the end of their tether, are too tired to care or to try. But watching the cast go through its motions is like watching a “Marat/Sade” in which the asylum inmates have been pumped full of Thorazine.
Joey, a part first played by Gene Kelly, has to be the engine of the show, and that’s a challenge beyond Mr. Risch. He dances agreeably, sings on key and consistently comes across as a really nice guy trying to be bad, even when he spreads his legs invitationally upon being introduced to Ms. Channing’s Vera. (Mr. Greenberg has upped the sexual content of their dialogue.)
Ms. Channing, whose drollery is one of the greater natural resources of the New York theater, here pushes deadpan into deadness, talking and singing in a hushed, level voice as if in a trance. I think I can see where she’s going with her interpretation, that she means to evoke a lonely and hard-living woman who survives through detachment. But here it’s not easy to differentiate between a character’s distancing herself from her bad behavior and an actress’s distancing herself from a bad production.
In the newly expanded role of Gladys Bumps, an aging entertainer who clashes with Joey, the ever-daring Ms. Plimpton exudes a been-there, frowzy sensuality that summons a host of hard-bitten dames from 1930s movie melodramas. Leading the nightclub act “That Terrific Rainbow,” she has the period style down pat and a more than passable voice.
She has also been given the fabled “Zip,” a satirical number about interviewing Gypsy Rose Lee, originally sung by a newspaper reporter (a character eliminated from this version). Ms. Plimpton has the chops to make “Zip” a showstopper, but she is undercut by staging that turns the song into a contemptuous burlesque turn, stripping the actress down her to scanties.
The emphasis shifts from the wit of Hart’s lyrics to the harshness and desperation of the woman singing them. This interpretation is definitely of a piece with Mr. Mantello’s overall approach. But wit is what has made “Pal Joey” endure, not its frankness about sordid lives. Frankness dates fast. Style of the order that Rodgers and Hart provided survives. Like its doomed-to-fail hero, this production has mistaken its priorities.