Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Intermission Talk: PAL JOEY, SHREK THE MUSICAL, and CHRISTINE JORGENSEN REVEALS

One Chases the Green Stuff,
and the Other Wallows in It

by Tony Vellela

It's possible to find something fascinating without really loving it - i.e. Sarah Palin's 24/7 campaign not-my-fault mode, Oscar telecasts, any episode of the Food Network's 'Ace of Cakes.' So, too, with the Roundabout's current revival of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz (Larry) Hart's "Pal Joey." Rodgers famously described Hart as "a partner, a best friend - and a source of permanent irritation." This was confirmed to me by Kitty Carlisle Hart - widow of Moss, unrelated friend of Larry - who recalled that he would sometimes disappear for days on end, indulging in binges of alcohol and reckless clandestine gay liaisons. But those loveless indulgences may have fueled some of the most marvelously melancholy lyrics ever penned, none more than "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

With their weary plaintive pronouncements about sleeping where one shouldn't sleep, or clinging to the trousers that cling to some lothario, Hart's words breathe unrequited love masquerading as casual lust. And at the heart of the "Pal Joey" story is middle-aged, wealthy Vera Simpson, a veteran opportunist who meets her match when she beds and bankrolls a luck-starved, fortune-hunting nightclub entertainer, and cad, named Joey Evans, during the ebbing of Chicago's '30s guns and graft era. They satisfy each other's hunger, temporarily.

'Fascinating,' here, is the vivid realization of the old maxim that the success of most productions is largely due to casting. Stockard Channing's Vera, Matthew Risch's Joey, and Martha Plimpton's hard-as-nails chanteus-y Gladys Bumps, live these roles. That means these characters are inhabited by real actors, who know their craft, and use it to good end. "Pal Joey" was considered a failure when it premiered in 1940, because its title character is such a louse, and the two women he dallies with are also paragons of lack of virtue. But two generations later, when a crazed barber and his slatternly landlady are serenading each other as they hack up corpses to bake into meat pies, and deranged non-entities sing entertainingly about their desire to shoot our best and brightest, Joey and company come off as picaresque.

Also worthy of adulation are Scott Pask's evocative sets that provide just enough context, and the costumes of the ingenious William Ivey Long, in particular, six floral-top numbers that should be granted much more stage time. And topping the list of guilty pleasures is the discovery of Plimpton's growly, spiky singing voice, the sound of too many cigarettes and not enough love. She is right at home, like most of the ladies in the "Stage Door" Footlights Club, cracking wise.

The 'irritating' list kicks off with Graciela Danielle's non-descript choreography. After a sinewy, evocative opening dance montage where penniless Joey gets beat up, beat down and then slinks away to the denizens of a shady nightclub, many of the remaining numbers feel labored [adolescent strip fantasy] or derivative [Fosse]. Risch, however, transcends the mediocre moves with his own personal juice, to deliver a rogue with plenty of back-alley swagger and just enough polish to be let in the back door.

Among the other disappointments is a lack of spark that should pull us through from one scene to the next. Director Joe Mantello keeps the momentum on such a low simmer that one fears that if anyone sneezes, the pilot light will blow out. And though others have brought too much negative attention to Channing's shaky singing voice, it is the message, not the medium, that counts here. Her Vera has not only been there and done that, she makes you think she invented it.

Probably the most startling aspect of this story that did not sit well with Broadway audiences nearly seven decades ago comes from an ending that has none of the three principals really changing. They begin, and end, as opportunists, with Joey besting the women at their gimme games. They are all left pretty much where they started, no uplifting transformations, no happy endings.


If that's what you crave, however, you can plunk yourself down at the Broadway Theatre and get both at the latest human-incarnated cartoon confection, "Shrek the Musical." If you have kids, you can bring them instead of buying them tickets and shoving them through the door while you knock back a few, elsewhere. This one was written for all ages, thanks to excellent penmanship by David Lindsay-Abaire. Unlike a few recent tuners aimed at the under-tens ["Chitty Chitty" and " Tarzan," for examples], where parents were heard to be offering anyone big bucks for a loaded revolver at intermission, "Shrek" generates grown-up laughs without the need to clamp adult hands over kiddie ears. The book and lyrics, aided by Jenine Tesori's era-hopping score, offer parodies "Gypsy," "Dreamgirls," and "The Lion King" and a grab-bag of martini-lunch lexicography, from pre-nups to Paxils.

Like the original film it is largely based on, the musical revels in its own jaunty journey through a fairy-tale tale, with its revisionist take on the tower-trapped Princess [Fiona], and the lonely Beast, [Shrek], with an already-broken heart. This fable is all the richer for its 'supporting cast,' including a Donkey sidekick who spits out one-liners like a four-legged stand-up, a devious son of royalty trying to snag the keys to the kingdom, and nearly every refugee from a bedtime story. There's not a bad performance in the land.

Sutton Foster is enjoying a career that is blessed with something many of the recent past's Broadway leading musical stars of the feminine gender have been deprived of - the opportunity to create original roles. While Patti had Evita early on, Bernadette spent eight Sundays a week with George, and Faith had an original role recently in the unfairly-maligned "A Catered Affair," they and others have had to rely on revivals to show off their talents far too often. Here, Foster shines again as brightly as she did as Millie, but draws from a witty book and peppery musical numbers to bring more than three dimensions to the flat-screen heroine she is vitalizing. Less a true beauty than some contemporaries like Rebecca Luker, she possesses an organic wackiness akin to Carol Burnett in "Once Upon a Mattress," or Lucille Ball in "Wildcat." And this material shows off her rare combination of talents to absolute perfection.

When Brian d'Arcy James insinuates himself center-stage, a living creature has arrived. Shrek's tortured life begins when his parents decide he is too ugly to keep, and he takes up his solitary residence in a dank, smelly swamp, his skin color matching his greenish surroundings. It's a tribute to d'Arcy James' agility that expressions, emotions, defeats and elations read through the green giant make-up, and lets us in on what's inside that bulky body. His unshakeable tagalong Donkey adds another meticulous performance to the resume of Daniel Breaker, whose lead turn in "Passing Strange" provided the right grounding for Stew's autobiographical anthem to self-discovery. As Pinocchio, the wooden boy with a truth-challenged nose, John Tartaglia leads the Three Blind Mice, the Three Bears, the Sugar Plum Fairy, Peter Pan and the rest of the fairy-tale family with all the energy of a dozen real boys. And as the height-challenged Lord Farquaad, Christopher Sieber runs away with every scene he's in, despite playing all of them on his knees behind two pudgy false legs that cut him down to pint-size.

Shrek, the Ogre, gets duped into rescuing the fair Fiona, who has been ensconced in a tower, Rapunzel-like, waiting for the Prince with the Magic First Kiss to liberate her. Her belfry has made her slightly batty. Cajoled by Donkey into completing the Big Task that will allow the fablers to return to their homes, and get them out of his swamp, where the little Lord has banished them, Shrek follows his heart, and instead of the Magic First Kiss turning him into the expected Prince Charming, it releases Fiona's True Self, the ogre identity she has kept hidden all these years. She is transformed, he is loved for himself and the happy ending returns.


And a heads-up about another return - Bradford Louryk's acclaimed reincarnation of America's most infamous transsexual, in "Christine Jorgensen Reveals." The limited engagement opens at the Lion Theatre on February 19th for five weeks, following previous engagements in New York, Dublin and Boston. Born George Jorgensen, Jr. in the Bronx in 1926, the central character shocked the world with his male-to-female transformation in Denmark, in 1953. Her notoriety resulted in another transformation - from shy young man to outgoing young woman, and in 1958, she agreed to a nearly hour-long fully candid interview. This production recreates that event, in the same manner as "Frost/Nixon." Louryk was named a Drama Desk Award-winner for Unique Theatrical Experience for his performance when he premiered the work in 2005.


TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies". His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

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