Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series has once again done what it does best—treat Broadway buffs to a one-night-only almost fully-staged revival of a show unlikely to get an extended MTW run—in this case Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey, which despite the unsympathetic characters who populate John O’Hara’s often unengaging book proves a showcase for a couple of R&H’s best known song classics (and for the triple-threats who perform them and many more).
Adam Pellegrine stars as sexy schemer Joey Evans, stuck in a go-nowhere job emceeing at a Chicago dive as he dreams of opening his own joint if only he can come up with financial backing.
A chance meeting with girl-next-door Linda English (Heather Lundstedt O’Neill) might lead to serious romance were Joey not so bent on succeeding no matter what, but Linda lacks the big bucks offered by married society maven Vera Simpson (Mary Gordon Murray), and so bye-bye Linda and hello Vera and the plush apartment and fancy wardrobe Joey soon starts calling his own.
Unfortunately it doesn’t take long for our antihero to find himself in hot water as singer-dancer Gladys Bumps (Natalie Nucci) conspires with sleazeball “artists rep” Ludlow Lowell (Gabriel Kalomas) to cut Joey down to size.
Additional characters include nightclub manager Mike Spears (Tom Shelton), who gives Joey the abovementioned emcee gig; showbiz reporter Melba Snyder (Kim Huber), who recalls interviewing stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the aptly named “Zip”; club tenor Louis (Jonathan Arana); assorted gents played by William Martinez and Jon M. Wailin; and chorines Valerie (Marisa Field), Diane (Annie Hinskton), Terry (Theresa Murray), and The Kid (Jane Papageorge).
Despite a ten-month run on the Great White Way in 1941 and four NYC revivals since then, Pal Joey remains rarely produced by regional theaters. Only two of its tuneful, cleverly-worded Rodgers & Hart songs are likely to ring a bell (“I Could Write a Book” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”) and book writer O’Hara, while a successful novelist, proves less adept at captivating a musical theater audience, particularly without a lead character to truly root for.
Thankfully, Reiner Reading Series producers Michael Betts and David Lamoureux have entrusted Pal Joey to director-choreographer Daniel A. Smith, who worked wonders doing similar double duty in Steel Pier, Little Me, and Kismet and does so again. (That a single talent could manage to direct and choreograph as dancy a show as Pal Joey proves to be in a mere 25-hours of rehearsal is indeed a wonder.)
It helps enormously that New York-based Pellegrine (Don in MTW’s A Chorus Line) was available to fly west to play Joey, a role whose specific requirements (vocal, dance, acting, looks, and age) make it hard to cast and harder still to perform, and tall, dark, and handsome Pellegrine fits the bill to a T for Talent.
O’Neill’s luminous Linda and Murray’s classy Vera are both terrific and Nucci’s triple-threat-tastic Gladys steals the show again and again, backed by sexy, sultry, sassy, dance-sational showgirls Field, Hinskton, Murray, and Papageorge, with special snaps to Papageorge’s ditzy blonde bombshell Kid.
Huber and Kalomas demonstrate versatility in addition to proven talent as the catty Melba and the crafty Ludlow, with Arana’s glorious tenor rising to new heights and Martinez and Wailin doing their own scene-stealing bits.
Adding to the excitement of hearing little-known Rodgers & Hart gems performed live is the production’s great big 16-piece orchestra provided by the Los Angeles Musicians Collective, vocals and instrumentals amplified and mixed to perfection by sound engineer Julie Ferrin.
Thanks go out to series underwriters Ken & Dottie Reiner, with additional funding provided by Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, Kathy Baker Campbell, Joe P. Moore, Jr. & Edna Moore, Marian Pincombe, and Pat & Janice De Rouen.
Broadway may have taken a fifth chance on Pal Joey (with a much-revised book) in 2008, but don’t expect any of our major theaters to be mounting their own fully-staged revival any time soon, not with Golden Era competition from Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and the rest, just one of many reasons why Sunday’s MTW/RRS reading proved a treat.
University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach
January 24, 2106