Stage Door Review 2019

Pal Joey

Oct 13, 2019

✭✭

music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, book by John O’Hara, directed by Esther Jun

Talk Is Free Theatre, Five Points Theatre, Barrie

October 11-19, 2019

Vera: “Horizontally speaking, he's at his very best”

Lovers of musicals should make a bee-line for Barrie to see a rare revival of Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey. Though the 1940 musical is deemed the best of the duo’s 28 musicals and of central importance in the history of music theatre, the last professional production in Ontario was back in 2004 at the Shaw Festival. The main difficulty with the show has been from the very beginning the unlikableness of the title character as drawn by book writer John O’Hara from his own stories along with the book’s cynical portrayal of human relations. In the present Talk Is Free Theatre production, director Esther Jun turns these supposed minuses to plusses. In her hands and those of her able cast, Pal Joey feels like a musical far ahead of its time. Its depiction of a grasping, superficial world anticipate the even darker worlds of musicals like Kander and Ebb’s Chicago (1975) or Sondheim’s Assassins (1990).

As I mentioned in my review of the 2004 Shaw production, “Pal Joey is important in the history of the American musical because of its deviations from the genre’s standard form. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story where getting into show business does not solve the title character’s problems. It is not a boy-gets-girl love story but is rather about an older woman who snares a younger man and then drops him when he proves inconvenient.... [I]t is a musical that points to the aspects of deception and wish-fulfillment in musical theatre more than celebrating the genre”. Rodgers and Hart deliberately make the numbers staged in the cabaret in the show seem tacky.

The story follows inveterate liar and womanizer Joey Evans (Justin Stadnyk), a New Yorker trying to make a new start in Chicago as a nightclub emcee. He meets a nice girl Linda English (Michaela Mar) and they are attracted to each other, but when she comes to see his show, the manager tells him to chat up the wealthy, married society queen Vera Simpson (Carly Street). Vera takes on Joey as the next of her lovers and sets him up in his own nightclub. But when a bogus show biz agent Ludlow Lowell (Giovanni Spina) and a showgirl Gladys Bumps (Tess Benger) plan to blackmail Vera, she drops Joey and he ends up worse off than when the show started.

This seemingly unedifying story plays out to a sequence of endlessly inventive music by Rodgers setting Hart’s extremely witty, often risqué lyrics. The show even has an extended dream ballet that concludes Act 1.

One of the reasons Esther Jun’s production works much better than Alisa Palmer’s 2004 production at the Shaw is that Jun is clearer in conveying the moral relativism of the story. When we first meet Joey, we are as likely to be put off as to be amused by his incessant lying either to win respect or pity from those he speaks to. From Joey’s perspective he is using Vera to get ahead in the world. But Jun makes clear that from Vera’s perspective Joey is just the latest in the long line of young men she craves to give herself the impression that she is not ageing.

In the Shaw production the sudden plot developments of Act 2 involving blackmailing Vera seemed like unnecessary complications. Under Jun the appearance of a real villain like Lowell and his moll of a chorus girl, make Joey seem good by comparison. Even though Joey fancies his abilities as a master manipulator of other people, Vera, Ludlow and Gladys reveal that Joey is far too naïve and too weak to thrive in a world inhabited by smarter, stronger and more devious people. In the TIFT production Joey thus becomes a more complex character and the world he lives in much darker. The show has set itself up as a counterexample to the sentimentality of typical Broadway romantic comedy and Jun demonstrates that in this lies the show’s modernity.

Jun also presents the musical in way that emphasizes its nature as a parable of modern life. Designer Joe Pagnan has turned the entire stage into a cabaret. The four-member band led by Dan Rutzen from the keyboards is visible stage right throughout the show. Stage left is the cabaret stage. And in front of the audience seats are cabaret tables and chairs. The cast rolls furniture and cutaway windows in and out as if they are all participating in bringing the story to life and everyone is part of the big ensemble numbers.

This metatheatricality reinforces the function of the show as a kind of anti-fairy tale. It also helps us to accept villains like Ludlow and Gladys and even a minor character like the journalist Melba Snyder being granted showcase numbers.

All of the roles are well cast. Justin Stadnyk makes a fine Joey because he always allows an air of insincerity to creep into everything Joey says. Stadnyk is also able to convey the dual nature of Joey’s character, so prominent in this production, of calculation and naïveté. The over-emphatic way Stadnyk delivers his false tales of his privileged past may fool an innocent like Linda, but hardened characters like the club manager Mike (Izad Etemadi), Vera, Ludlow and Gladys see right through them. Nonplussed, Joey follows one set of lies with another as if ignorant of how transparent he is.

Stadnyk is excellent at putting across some of the show’s best tunes like “I Could Write a Book”, “Chicago” and “Pal Joey”. Best, perhaps, are his final moments on stage when he leaves Linda claiming he’s been accepted into a Broadway show. Simply through Stadnyk’s facial expressions we can tell that Joey has realized he is no good, that he will never change and that he should not stay around to ruin Linda’s life. Stadnyk’s handling of these final moments is crucial to our reassessing of Joey’s entire character.

Carly Street is a formidably viperous Vera Simpson right from the start. We know from the strength Street gives her that if Joey thinks he’s the one manipulating Vera, he’s sadly mistaken. Yet, even so, Street demonstrates that even such a self-concerned woman as Vera can doubt herself as in her sultry, emotionally complex account of the the show’s most famous song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”.

Michaela Mar makes an attractive Linda. She possesses a lovely, rounded operetta-style voice and a radiant personality. In Linda’s duet “Take Him” with Vera, her brave Linda easily stands up to the indignant upper-class queen bee.

Tess Benger, who was such a revelation as Sally Bowles in the Grand Theatre London’s Cabaret this year, seems to be playing a nastier version of Sally in her role as Gladys Bumps, the lead singer of the chorus girls (Sierra Holder, Billy Lake, Alison J. Palmer and Kristen Pottle).

Giovanni Spina has appeared in numerous shows, but it is great finally to hear him sing his number. He brings his powerful, silky voice and elegant moves to “Plant You Now, Dig You Later” and to “Do It the Hard Way”, both of which demonstrate that Ludlow may be malicious but he is also undeniably suave.

Derek Kwan has only one big number as the Tenor in “The Flower Garden of My Heart”. Rodgers and Hart have written this piece as a send-up the kind of romantic hyperbole one might find in the operettas of Victor Herbert or Sigmund Romberg. Kwan’s cultured voice nobly sings the melodic line while the chorus girls enact the hilariously clichéd choreography of Alyssa Martin in the equally humorous costumes of Michelle Bohm. As the starting number of Act 2, Jun’s direction has already made clear that this is exactly the kind of sentimentality that Pal Joey pits itself against.

After the Shaw production of 2004, I felt that Pal Joey, no matter how well performed, was still a flawed work. In contrast the TIFT production has made me feel I finally understand the piece and why Rodgers and Hart poured so much creativity into what seems like such a disagreeable story. Pal Joey is one of the rare American musicals where the dreamer is not rewarded for his dreams and the viciousness of reality is not conquered. This was a radical notion in 1940 and for many is still a radical notion now. Let’s hope TIFT dusts off other works by Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins and Jerome Kern that show how satire of commonly held myths was once an integral part of musicals.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Justin Stadnyk as Joey; Justin Stadnyk as Joey and Micheala Mar as Linda; Tess Benger as Gladys and Giovanni Spina as Ludlow; Carly Street as Vera; Kristen Pottle, Sierra Holder, Alison J. Palmer, Tess Benger and Billy Lake as the chorus girls. © 2019 Scott Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.tift.ca.