It has been a long time since Chicago theater audiences have had the opportunity to see one of the “oldie, but goody” musicals. In fact, it is said that “Pal Joey” was the first “anti-hero” hero in a musical. Back in the early days, when all the musicals had happy endings and all the heroes were “nice guys”, “Pal Joey” was a true throwback, but society, which might have gone against the grain of this story, fell in love with the score written by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart ( lyrics) and a book by John O’Hara. O’Hara, a columnist for the New Yorker had a series of short stories featuring the character Joey Evans, a charming cad who after finding trouble in other large cities, finds himself in Chicago and we are witness to his dirty deeds and those of some of his associates. While there are many stories like this, this is a fun musical with an ending that is not what was the norm in this period. That might be why we do not see many productions of this play.
Michael Weber, Artistic Director of Porchlight Music Theatre has taken on this challenge. Since their “anthem” says they will bring to the stage, American Musicals- Chicago Style”, why not take on one that few have seen. To make his mission even more special, Weber , the Director as well, he has brought on a staff that is pure Chicago Musical- Doug Peck as the Musical Director and the highly talented Brenda Didier ( master of making a small stage appear larger when filled with dancers) as Choreographer. With these three at the helm, we know that the effort will be 200% from start to finish!
The story is fairly simple, pretty boy. Joey Evans, is a con man who can sway a woman into believing anything he says and always gets his way, until he gets caught and run out of town. Weber has cast the perfect actor for this role that requires a warm lovable smile, a smooth delivery of lines ( whether the script or “the script”), the ability to dance and sing- Adrian Aguilar, and to be honest, as good as I thought he has been in previous area productions, in this one, he exceeded my expectations. ( don’t confuse yourself with the movie version where the character became more Sinatra and less Joey- Aguilar is “the real thing”). While he has many women in his life, in this particular story, there are two that make the difference: the young Linda ( Laura Savage) who falls for him and his tales hook, line and sinker, only to be left behind and the older, married woman, Vera Simpson ( Susie McMonagle, one of Chicago’s favorites, in a role she was destined to play- and does so to perfection), who uses Joey for her youth’s sake while he uses her to get his own club. In fact, the term “Pal Joey” has been associated with Gigolos for many decades.
It can be described as con-man jumps on train to new city, gets a job in a club and shares a bed with a young girl, meets and older wealthy woman, jumps into bed with her, takes her for a ride, while having some feelings for the younger, left behind. Success starts to take place, old blackmailer comes into town and begins to squeeze Joey for all he’s worth, Lover(s) both give up on him, but get rid of blackmailers and young con-man, once again broke ,sneaks his way on to the next town to do it all over again. I guess, if you describe it that way, it is not a great story, but the songs “I Could Write A Book”, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered Am I”, , “What Is A Man”, Take Him” and many others and the sublime dance numbers ( Didier is indeed a magician- the small stage of Stage 773 appears much larger to her eye, putting much large dance numbers on it than seem would fit, but she gets it done) and of course the well cast actors who make this show fun to watch and despite some of the characters being “bad guys”, you seem to care.
The small ( in numbers only) cast is highly talented and energetic, many of them taking on multiple roles. In addition to those already mentioned: Callie Johnson is adorable is her role as Melba, the newspaper interviewer who come sout of her shell during the Joey interview- Boy! does she!. Matt Orlando is solid as the blackmailer Ludlow Lowell ( with two “l”s) and is quite the song and dance man. His accomplice is the amazing Sharriese Hamilton as Gladys Bumps ( what a name for a dancer in a club during these times) . Steven Pringle is the bar owner, Mike and Jim Heatherly, who takes on several roles, shines with his musical number ” The Flower Garden in My Heart” to open the second act. Darrin French,Clare Dolan,Kory Pullam, Ben Chang and Daniel Spagnuolo fill out the ensemble members, and then we get to the dancers- these ladies are fun and funny, bright and come in all shapes and sizes, yet, they bring something special to the stage- they all can hold their own with any other theater in town: Jenna Schoppe, Jordan Yentz, Rachel Osling and Lexi Lyric. I hope I have these all right as I was so involved with the story, I am not sure if Ms Johnson or Ms Dolan became dancers as well- if I am in error, I apologize, but I will be glad to resolve this- the entire ensemble was one of strength and energy that made this performance a very enjoyable two hours and twenty some minutes.
For those unfamiliar with the Porchlight stage at 773, it is open on three sides for the audience to be as intimate as you can be, seeing into the faces of the actors and they use the aisles, so in many cases, they can almost touch you ( or vice-versa).William Boles’ set is open and allows us to go from area to area with very little time spent changing things, which is often difficult in a smaller, more open place. But with the actors working alongside the stage crew, this show has very smooth transitions. Bill Morey’s costumes are sheer perfection for the times, even the shoes are correct, Nick Belley and Greg Hofmann have done a great job on the lighting, Agnes Campos (props), Scott Sowinski ( wigs and make-up) and Thom Van Ermen ( stage manager) are the final elements to making the tech portion equal to that of the talent on stage. I also want to acknowledge the talented musicians under the direction of Jeremy Kahn ( keyboars): Dan Kristan,Zach Marks, Jordan Yentz, Adam DeGroot, Derek Fitting and Ben Chang. They were never overbearing which means that we, the audience were never deprived of hearing the performers on the stage. Thank you musicians!
The “original/ 1940’s and complete “Pal Joey”, will continue at Stage 773 located at 1225 West Belmont Avenue in Chiacgo through May 26th with performances as follows:
Fridays at 8 p.m.
Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m.
Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $39 and can be purchased at the box office, by calling 773-327-5252 or online at www.stage773.com
To learn more about Porchlight and their next season as well as how to subscribe for choice tickets and special savings, visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org
There is street parking, some metered some free and some sticker as well as some parking at Cooper’s restaurant directly across the street , a fun place to eat before or after a show as many of our local actors dine there as well) valet parking is also available and public transportation is simple.
To see what others are saying visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “pal Joey”