Porchlight Stages a Bewitching PAL JOEY

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Pal Joey first appeared on stage on Christmas Day 1940. This wonderful musical creation by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart features one of the greatest American musical scores including “I Could Write a Book,” “You Mustn’t Kick it Around,” “Zip” and my favorite “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Rogers and Hart co-wrote this musical based on Best-selling novelist, John O’Hara’s short stories which were written for the New Yorker magazine. The articles were written as a series of letters to “Dear Ted Pal from Pal Joey”. The letters featured Pal Joey as a second rate night-club performer who would stop at nothing to advance his career. This calculating crooner used journalists, nightclub owners, agents, and of course women to search for the perfect singing gig to make him a star. Actually, for its time, this story was somewhat scandalous and racy. Due to the hoodlum element and Joey’s adulterous affairs, this is a story you would not be used to seeing in 1940. However, Roger’s, Hart, and O’Hara were true trail blazers for their time exploring a darker musical story with a non-conventional ending.

The story takes place in 1939, in Chicago. Joey Evans (played by Adrian Aguilar) is a brash, fast talking, scheming crooner who talks his way into a job at a south side nightclub. However in getting there he manages to woo the affections of a naive shop girl, Linda English, (played by Laura Savage) and a wealthy socialite, Vera Simpson, (played by Susie McMonagle) who Joey looks to help back his career in exchange for his boyish good looks and his amorous affections. This story is reminiscent of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” where Vera Simpson is “Mad about the boy”. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma breaks down and kills her boy after learning he does not love her. In Pal Joey, Vera merely ruins Joey’s career aspirations by pulling the financial rug out from under him. To add to his distress, Joey is given a dose of his own medicine by entrusting gangster, Ludlow Lowell, (played by Matthew Orlando) to manage his career, who ends up black mailing him.

While the book is rather dated and does not always deliver 100%, this Porchlight Theater production delivered 110%. The superb direction by Michael Weber, with Musical Direction by Doug Peck, and Choreography by Brenda Didier, made this show work. Pal Joey moved at a rapid pace and the scene transitions were seamless. This impressive production is no small endeavor for a small theater space.

The singing and dancing talent of Adrian Aguilar was phenomenal and extremely entertaining. The chorus girl dance team of Sharriese Hamilton, Lexi Lyric, Rachel Osting, Jenna Schoppe, and Jordan Yenta; along with the male counterparts of Daniel Spagnulo, Kory Pullam, Darrin French, Steven Pringle, Ben Chang, and Jim Hetherly strategically moved through Brenda Didier’s wonderful choreography. The night-club, Cabaret feel of the ensemble numbers were bawdy and fun. Susie McMonagle flawlessly played the socialite with the desire for a handsome, younger man. She was as bewitching as her musical rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”. Truly a highlight of this show, this is one of Susie’s best performances added to her long list of outstanding performances, awards and nominations. Laura Savage’s sweet performance as Linda English, provided the innocence and balance this story needed. Linda’s duets with Adrian singing, “I Could Write a Book” and “Take Him” with Susie McMonagle were lovely and inspiring.

Even though, Adrian and Susie provided a captivating performance and many enjoyable moments in “Pal Joey”, I will have to say the absolute showstopper was Callie Johnson who played critic, Melba Snyder. While interviewing Joey, captivated by his charm, Melba transformed from a mousy bookish critic to a vixen complete with a seductive strip tease during the song “Zip”. Callie’s fabulous performance captivated the audience who rewarded her with thunderous applause.

All in all, I really loved the Porchlight production of “Pal Joey” As I stated earlier, this story is a bit out dated and contrived. The blackmailing gangster plot comes too late in the show and falls flat with a weak resolution. Additionally, I would have liked to have seen a little more development with Linda and Joey’s relationship. The written story may have been more effective in 1940. However, Joey and Linda’s relationship seemed very awkward and made the story line weak. I think further development of this story would have made the story stronger and more interesting. That being said, this is no fault of this production. This is more of a book issue, which would require a rewrite. The saving grace to this show is the wonderful Rogers and Hart musical score. Kudos to Porchlight and Pal Joey’s excellent direction and choreography team which focused on the music and made a mundane story more interesting and very entertaining. The entire cast is very talented and this performance is a must see. I highly recommend it. It is very Bewitching!

Pal Joey runs through May 26, 2013 at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Ave. Previews are Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 8 p.m. The regular run schedule is Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 for previews and $39 for all other performances. Groups of ten or more may receive discounts on tickets purchased via the Groups Sales office at 773.777.9884. Single tickets for Pal Joey are on sale now and may be purchased at stage773.com or by phone at 773.327.5252. For calendar information visit www.TheatreInChicago.com. Photos by Brandon Dahlquist