Christian Hoff may well be the luckiest man in New York right now. He was spared the indignity of appearing in the Roundabout Theater's dismal revival of Pal Joey. This production is easily one of the worst I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot. ("I mean a lot...")
Hoff would undoubtedly have had more stage presence than the unfortunate Matthew Risch, who exhibits no charisma, no charm, no lasting impression at all as Joey, at least until he takes off his shirt. Risch is a strong dancer, and possesses a decent but unremarkable singing voice, but there's no real indication in his performance as to why all these people in the show should be so beguiled by Joey. Risch squirms, slouches, and slithers his way through the role, which is certainly an interesting acting choice, but makes the supposed attraction even more inscrutable.
I've been going back and forth on whether I disliked the show itself or this admittedly lackluster production. Because the music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart coalesce into more of a random series of songs than a cohesive score. Half of the score consists of non-integrated nightclub numbers ("You Mustn't Kick It Around," "The Terrific Rainbow," "The Flower Garden of My Heart," etc.) Yeah, I know, the show's supposedly a classic. I teach Pal Joey in my Boston Conservatory class, because it represents a number of significant developments in musical theater history: it's the first significant use of an antihero, and it represents a major step in the progression towards realism and serious subject matter.
But that doesn't mean it's a good show. There are quite a few musicals that I include in my course, not because they're good or because I enjoy them, but because they're historically significant. It was very interesting to catch both Pal Joey and Music in the Air in the same weekend, a rare chance to witness early works by both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein before they met up with each other and changed the course of musical theater. At the end of the day, I saw both of these shows as part of the long, slow slog towards quality and integration: interesting from a historical perspective, but not necessarily entertaining.
The Roundabout seemed to make a big deal about how noted playwright Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out, Three Days of Rain) would be providing a new book for the show, based on the original by John O'Hara, which O'Hara adapted from his own 1939 novel. Greenberg had previously adapted the Pal Joey book for a 1992 production at Boston's Huntington Theatre, but to my knowledge this is his only experience in crafting a musical libretto. From where I sit, Greenberg's version isn't much better than the admittedly creaky original. The result is jokey but not funny, and full of plot holes and unanswered questions.
But the primary villain of the disaster that is Pal Joey is Joe Mantello, whose direction here is every bit as limp as it was in The Ritz, another Roundabout disappointment. His chief crime is making the normally wonderful Stockard Channing seem cowed and weary, as if to say, "Get me out of this dog." I had been hearing that Martha Plimpton almost made this production worth seeing. Yeah, almost. Plimpton has a surprisingly strong voice for someone who's not normally associated with musicals, but she also has a blunt, flat delivery and that's a sure sign of someone with an AWOL director, or one who didn't take the time to modulate her performance. Still, she's the only interesting presence onstage here: no subtlety, but at least she's lifelike.
I've got a notebook full of other problems I had with the show and the production (including Graciela Daniele's uninspired and frequently awkward choreography), but, you know what? I can't be bothered. Suffice it to say this production was colorless and dull. We may yet see a revival of Pal Joey that rediscovers and reinterprets the show, finding something interesting and entertaining hiding somewhere in this material. But this production wasn't it.