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Catching Up with 'Pal Joey'

JOEY - Risch Channing table 0555 Because of scheduling conflicts and a delayed opening, I was not able to see the Roundabout revival of Pal Joey until Jan. 23, several weeks after it had opened. I think I saw a much better show than many of colleagues who viewed it just before or just after the opening, the traditional dates that first and second night critics are admitted. Understudy Matthew Risch had stepped into the leading role of Joey when Tony winner Christian Hoff injured his foot. The opening was pushed back a few days. As a result, Risch did not have much rehearsal time and the reviews were generally mixed with many stating the lead was not up to the challenge.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Risch was everything Joey must be--a dynamite dancer, a charming romeo, and a first-class heel. The only area where he was lacking was in the vocal department, but Joey is more of a dancing role. I suspect he's had a chance to grow into the part and without the pressure of carrying a huge musical opening with little notice, he's more relaxed. Joe Mantello's production is pure film noir with Scott Pask's menacing set dominated by grim elevated train tracks. As Vera Simpson, Joey's alcoholic patroness, Stockard Channing is so cutting and martini-dry, she draws blood from the other characters and tears from the audience. Channing is not a great singer either, but she puts across "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "What Is a Man?" with conviction and humor.

Martha Plimpton is another performer we don't usually see in musicals. Yet she scores a bull's eye with the tough-talking showgirl Gladys. Plimpton does push a little hard on the hard-boiled dame bit, but there's a solid character there. Her strip number "Zip"--immortalized by Elaine Stritch in the early 1950s revival--is sassy and joyously vulgar. Jenny Fellner puts just enough sweetness into the ingenue role of Linda to make us root for her but keeps her from being too cloying.   

If you haven't caught this Joey yet, give it a chance. (photo: Joan Marcus) 

--David Sheward 

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