San Diego State’s Master of Fine Arts program in musical theatre has a reputation for producing little known but interesting musicals and finding in them what’s interesting to contemporary audiences. The current production, Pal Joey, fits into that pattern but achieves mixed results.
Pal Joey was the penultimate collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. It opened on Broadway in 1940, a year where the Great Depression gave way to anxiety over war in Europe and Asia. Styles in theater were changing, and the story of a second-rate cabaret performer who was a cad with women was a breakthrough in that it focused more on drama than on music. Despite being directed by the famed George Abbott and featuring the first performance as a leading man by Gene Kelly, Pal Joey was more popular with critics than audiences. Rodgers would write one additional musical with Hart and then switch to collaborating with Oscar Hammerstein, II, a partnership that quickly produced the critically-heralded and long-running musical drama, Oklahoma!, along with many other beloved musicals that defined the “golden era” that was yet to come.
Based on a series of New Yorker stories by novelist John O’Hara, Joey was, to 1940s audiences, an unsympathetic character. He had some pizzazz as a performer, but not enough to be a man on his way to stardom. And, he exaggerated his own backstory, particularly when flirting with women, something he did as often as possible. He even settled into an adulterous affair with a married matron, trading sex for the money he needed to set himself up in the club business in Chicago. Admittedly, Chicago was the nation’s Second City, but here it was portrayed as a second-rate city. New York was where the action was, and Joey wasn’t going there anytime soon.
Mr. Abbott, who had a keen eye for performers who had “it,” cast Gene Kelly because he wanted a dancer to play Joey. If audiences were going to see through his leading man, at least he wanted them to be charmed by the dance numbers, of which Rogers and Hart wrote several, setting many of them in the different clubs where Joey worked. Those who’ve seen Mr. Kelly’s film work, though, know that he could project a hard edge and play drama as equally well as comedy.
Paula Kalustian, the SDSU’s production director, had a similar idea, but she cast a dancer who projects “musical comedy star” all the way. Cody Walker, this production’s Joey, performed in the national tour of the musical 42nd Street, which is, perhaps, the antithesis of Pal Joey in attitude. Mr. Walker tries to be a cad, but he comes across more as a good-looking man who is an excellent flirt. It doesn’t help that Joey’s affair with Vera Simpson (Roxanne Carrasco) would have audiences shrugging their shoulders and saying “what’s wrong with that?” today.
If Mr. Walker is only partially successful as Joey (he does sing and dance quite well – and, along with his castmates, plays Mr. O’Hara’s book scenes with a fine sense of understated humor) – other cast members seem well-chosen. Ms. Carrasco toiled for eight years in the Broadway production of Chicago, and she brings a refreshing seen-it-all quality to the Vera Simpson role. She also gets the show’s hit song, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and she brings out its character elements, such as caressing the line, “And worship the trousers that cling to him.” Other standouts include Kimberly Doreen Burns as the naïve Linda English and Sasha Weiss as Joey’s rival, the cabaret singer Gladys Bumps. [php snippet=1]MFA students also shone on the production side. Ryan Grossheim’s set includes a stage-within-a-stage for the cabaret acts’ performances, and Conor Mulligan lights those performances emphasizing their glitz. Jill Gorrie staged a variety of dance numbers, including cabaret acts and a dream ballet (though, Mr. Walker is credited with the tap choreography). On opening night, the cast seemed a bit mechanical in its execution of the multitudinous dance moves, but there were sparks of charisma that will undoubtedly deepen into a greater fluidity as performances progress.
Pal Joey has not been revived frequently, and the film version, starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak was tampered with to give it a happy ending. If you want to see the show that prefigured the success of serious musicals such as Cabaret you have only until March 9 to make your way to the Don Powell Theatre at SDSU.
Full disclosure: I am a faculty member at San Diego State University, and the School of Journalism and Media Studies, and I am housed, in the same college as the School of Theatre, Television, and Film. I have no connection to this production, however.