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Pal Joey

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 3, 2023

Ephraim Sykes and Aisha Jackson
Photo by Joan Marcus
Imagine you are the proud owner of four lovely die cut jigsaw puzzles. Each puzzle consists of pieces that have been shaped using the same pattern. Carefully assembled, you will wind up with four separate images, let's say a sleeping cat, a field of poppies, a village square, and a waterfall. Now imagine your mischievous sibling has mixed the pieces from all four puzzles, so that when you put together what you expect will be a picture of the sleeping cat, you wind up with something that is one quarter cat, one quarter poppies, one quarter village square, and one quarter waterfall. Sorry for the convoluted analogy, but all of this is to give you a sense of what you will encounter with the production of the often bewitching but also bothersome and occasionally bewildering production of Pal Joey at New York City Center.

It would be one thing if we could say this version of Pal Joey is an altogether "puzzling" mess. But it isn't. In fact, against all odds, it is highly engaging and entertaining, thanks in large part to a wonderful, talented cast and a plethora of Rodgers and Hart songs that have been pulled not only from Pal Joey (of which only a few have survived the cut), but also from others of their shows, including The Boys from Syracuse and Babes in Arms.

Surprisingly, these all work because most of them are self-contained diegetic numbers, sung as part of a club act or on the radio or at a recording session. They don't have to drive or comment on the characters or the plot, nor does it matter. They are all quite interesting, even exciting to experience here, especially as arranged and orchestrated by Daryl Waters for the small but gifted band, with special laurels to be bestowed on trumpet player Alphonso Horne. Kudos, too, to Aisha Jackson as Linda English, Joey's one true love interest (other than himself), who outshines the title character (Ephraim Sykes, playing to the hilt the perfect combination of superficial charm and overinflated self-importance) in every way; Jackson's performances of a half dozen classic tunes show her to be a perfect candidate to put out an album of Rodgers and Hart songs.

Among the rest of the cast, you'll find excellent performances in great abundance. Elizabeth Stanley is first-rate as Vera Simpson ("Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered"), more complicated and savvy than you might expect; she is Joey's equal in terms of manipulating others while striving to shape him in her image so that she can remain in control of their interracial relationship, one of two in the production. Both of these relationships (the other is between club owner Lucille Wallace, played by Loretta Devine, and her beau Tony, played by Jeb Brown) become significant parts of the narrative in the new book by Richard LaGravenese and Daniel "Koa" Beaty. Devine is especially delightful as Lucille, the owner of the nightclub where Joey gets his first big break before he is almost crushed by Vera's efforts to turn him into "Bing Crosby dipped in fudge," as Lucille describes it. Also on hand and in glorious form is Brooks Ashmanskas, doing a very funny turn as a newspaper columnist who performs an unexpected version of one of the show's songs.

All of this is to the good. However, even the elements of that mixed-up puzzle are very interesting. Call it a clash among creative teammates, each of whom has a different idea of how to proceed. But instead of compromising on a single vision, they have all gone full out in putting on the version of Pal Joey each of them envisions, resulting in that cat/poppies/village square/waterfall image.

To begin with, to call the production Pal Joey is misleading, since the new product bears only a passing resemblance to the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical, which was notoriously encumbered by John O'Hara's messy book. Where the original Joey was a white man trying to maneuver his way to success within a white world, Joey is now a Black man who is certain he can use his wiles, good looks, and superficial charm to break through the racial and racist barriers that have been keeping him in check. His relationships with the women in his life (Linda, Lucille, and Vera) take on all sorts of new meanings, especially since all three women can see right through him and succumb to his charms because they choose to do so.

Then there is the co-direction by Tony Goldwyn and Savion Glover, which jumps around between straightforward narrative and more abstract interpretations, especially as evidenced via Glover's always thrilling if sometimes confusing choreography. Glover, who epitomizes the richness of the modern tap dance movement, has come up with an embarrassment of riches here, with his choreography embracing both traditional and syncopated, percussive tap styles, as well as dance in the mode of Alvin Ailey and even of the type of "exotic" chorus line movement that one might associate with a Josephine Baker revue.

Most abstractly, an ensemble of dancers, generally seen in very low lighting, perform as "griots," connecting Joey to whatever is left of his soul that he hasn't bartered away, and to his spiritual and racial roots. That the presence of the griots is given a short explanation by Lucille near the end of the show suggests the creative team understands their ghostly presence needs an explanation. And, finally, given the total reshaping of the show, which includes references to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Adelaide Hall, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and other great Black singers and musicians, one wonders what we're doing with an entire score composed by a pair of white musical theatre tunesmiths.

Nevertheless, and having said all this, the overall show is a brilliantly conceived and gutsy approach to a 1940 musical that has never been given a truly successful production, at least not on Broadway. The creative team gets props and a huge round of applause for having the courage of their convictions. Honestly, with some rejiggering, this version of Pal Joey, which is almost too big to contain on the City Center stage, could find success on Broadway. For all its flaws, this is a thrilling venture. And honestly, wouldn't a cat/poppies/village square/waterfall picture puzzle be more interesting than any of these alone?

Pal Joey
Through November 5, 2023
New York City Center Gala Performance
131 W 55th St (between Sixth and Seventh avenues)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: