Stockard Channing, Matthew Risch, and Martha Plimpton sparkle in the Roundabout's highly entertaining revival of the classic Rodgers & Hart musical.
Despite her adequate but not overwhelming voice, Channing's characterization of Vera -- a pithy variation on the roles she has played as Upper East Side socialite Ouisa Kittredge in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation and Regina Giddins in the Broadway revival of Little Foxes -- turns out to be only one of the satisfying delights in a production that experienced some mighty touch-and-go moments getting this far.
Its biggest, most unexpected obstacle was losing its leading man, Christian Hoff, in previews due to a foot injury. Luckily, director Joe Mantello and choreographer Graciele Danielle had understudy Matthew Risch tapping like fury in the wings. Okay, the brilliantine-haired Risch lad doesn't quite have the sleaze-to-the-core quality accorded him by John O'Hara (whose original story has been re-adapted here by Richard Greenberg), but he's got enough of the required stuff to properly portray the ambitious night-club song-and-dance man who dangles himself between sugar mommy Vera and sweet haberdasher's assistant Linda (pert Jenny Fellner).
Itemizing the many other Pal Joey pluses makes for a joyful pastime. At the top of the list is the Rodgers and Hart score, which includes the tender-souled balled "I Could Write a Book" and the deliciously silly second-act opener "Flower Garden of My Heart" (nicely performed by tenor Daniel Marcus and six chorines). But Hart was never one to shy away from the seamy side: "In Our Little Den of Iniquity" and "Take Him" are both mouthwateringly cynical, and the several production-number send-ups are cheap in the most grin-inducing manner.
One particularly appealing aspect of this revival is that it only inserts two little-known Rodgers and Hart ditties not from the original score ("I Still Believe in You," and "Are You My Love?"), and even adds back "I'm Talking to My Pal," which was written for the show but not initially used. And true, the creative team here changed some lyrics in the hilarious mock-strip "Zip," because references to the likes of ballerina Vera Zorina and debutante Cobina Wright might mean nothing to today's audiences. More noticeably, the song is no longer performed by the now-non-existent character of reporter Melba, but has been handed to brassy nightclub thrush Gladys Bumps, played brilliantly by the can-do-no-wrong Martha Plimpton.
Greenberg's other major, if seemingly unnecessary, re-working of the O'Hara script was to add a gay sub-plot regarding nightclub manager Mike (Robert Clohessy), which isn't very O'Hara but is very much Greenberg. Still, there's little harm done to this evergreen musical gem.