Theater Review | 'Pal
Joey' presents a Vera you won't soon forget
The defining moment in the Prince Music Theater's production of Rodgers' and Hart's Pal Joey aptly places Christine Andreas before a mirror for a gorgeous treatment of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" that's an act of revelation as well as restoration.
Instead of the bland and familiar pop standard, the song, now in its original context, is filled with the sexual candor and pained self-knowledge that perfectly reflects a woman looking at herself with an unsparing eye. Andreas' Vera Simpson has once again fallen for a worthless conniver, and her money will keep him around for as long as she wants.
The emotional range of Andreas' reading of Hart's biting lyrics is astonishing, and her performance is the sustaining strength of the show.
Pal Joey is a bold creation that rests on a dual paradox. It boasts a score of surpassing beauty devoted to the ugly story of a man who is much more of a heel than a hero and the two women who enter his life. In 1940, it was far ahead of its time, and yet it remains firmly rooted in its period.
The Prince edition makes a convincing argument that Pal Joey and not Oklahoma!, which arrived three years later, was the breakthrough in the development of musical theater.
Richard Rodgers later wrote of the show, which shocked many theatergoers six decades ago, that John O'Hara's book had characters who lacked "even a bowing acquaintance with decency." This Pal Joey goes back to the source and gives you the chance to experience the original conception. It works well, even if it can't mesh the formulaic musical comedy with the blunt and adult realism.
Trent Dawson's Joey is well-sung and graceful, if a little wanting in the charisma that makes women see through his lies and wiles and fall for him anyway. His life is in a downward spiral when he arrives in Chicago to take a gig as the emcee at a seedy club.
Dawson deftly suggests that Joey is one of those guys whose seductions are for the thrill of the chase rather than the enjoyment of the prize. When Vera Simpson, rich and open about her sexual appetites, strolls into the club and Joey's life, a relationship of convenience quickly follows.
Vera knows exactly what she's getting into and why, but she takes the plunge anyway. It was surely her unabashed openness that startled the first audience for Pal Joey more than the saucy spice of Hart's brilliant lyrics.
As the more innocent and conventional Linda, Kelly McCormick brings a touching, if misplaced, faith to the idea that Joey might have redeeming qualities.
The supporting work, especially Christa Justus' zesty rendition of "Zip" as the skeptical reporter Melba Snyder, is fine. Only David Bailey's overstated, Runyonesque gangsterism as Ludlow Lowell is off-key and makes the flimsy blackmail plot even more labored than it has to be. Choreographer Myra Bazell has to work within the limitations of the club stage, but the results are lively and effective.
At the end of Pal Joey, Andreas reprises "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" to indicate her emergence from Joey's dubious influence. The spell she casts as Vera lingers long afterward.