PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Pal Joey — Love Has Many Phases

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Pal Joey — Love Has Many Phases
John O'Hara's rat-with-women, Joey Evans — known to friends, enemies and musical-theatre buffs alike as Pal Joey — officially turned Studio 54 into "Chez Joey" for his fifth Broadway visit Dec. 18, one week short of 68 years since he first arrived here.
Stockard Channing, Matthew Risch, Martha Plimpton, Robert Clohessy, Jenny Fellner and Joe Mantello
Stockard Channing, Matthew Risch, Martha Plimpton, Robert Clohessy, Jenny Fellner and Joe Mantello Photo by Aubrey Reuben

On Christmas Day of 1940, first-nighters unwrapped a gift that keeps on giving from Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart — a music box stuffed with soon-to-be-standards like "I Could Write a Book," "You Mustn't Kick It Around," "Zip," "In Our Little Den of Iniquity" and that piece de resistance with the everlasting lilt, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" — only the gift didn't go down well back then because it came with an unsavory tale of an opportunistic roué who turns club owner in Chicago of the '30s, through the love of a good (albeit, married and older) woman sponsoring him.

The book — adapted by O'Hara from his own short story but bearing the fingerprints of George Abbott, who produced and directed — has always held this sublime score back, one way or another: Either it was shocking then, or it is "go, girl" naïve now.

Many have tried to surmount this problematic storyline over the years in Joey's numerous reincarnations. Billy Wilder, who understood such relationships ("Sunset Boulevard"), entertained the idea of doing a movie of Pal Joey in the mid-'50s with Mae West and Marlon Brando. When it did reach the screen in 1957, Rita Hayworth, 39, and Frank Sinatra, 42, made the older woman-younger man taboo nil and void.

Now, for its current rendition, this generation gap has been rectified with a vengeance by adapter Richard Greenberg — and an act of God. It toplines Stockard Channing, 64, and Matthew Risch, 27. Jersey Boys Tony winner Christian Hoff was to have had the title role, but a leg injury sidelined him and set his understudy up for stardom. Critics were kept at bay an additional week, but the after-party booked for the Marriott Marquis' eighth-floor party arena Dec. 11 went ahead as originally planned.

Somebody tried to hang "Broadway Star" on Risch when he entered the reception area, but he demurred. "I dunno, I wouldn't say that," he dirt-kicked. "It was very surreal, but I had a good time." His "good time" meant, on "opening" night, working up a profuse sweat his first 15 minutes on stage as a Star; then, he relaxed into the role. "A raw kid from the chorus" (as they called 'em in 42nd Street), Risch is now living one of Broadway's most popular myths — indeed, he's proof positive that such things actually happen. "This is my third Broadway show. I was ensemble in Chicago and Legally Blondefeatured ensemble," he backed up to add with emphasis. The very fact he made it to the finish line, he said, was because he got "nothing but company support. I couldn't have done it without that. I wouldn't be standing on my feet right now if it weren't for them. They were absolutely giving and gracious throughout."

At the end of the day — this day — the thing that joyed director Joe Mantello most about the show was the company's united front. "Christian hurting himself was very sad for all of us," he said, "but I'm incredibly proud of the way they rallied 'round Matt when this unfortunate setback occurred. They reinvigorated the rehearsal process by just throwing their support behind him. It brought us all together."

With the show already in previews, he didn't have the option or luxury of casting about for a star replacement — so he went with the understudy. "We didn't have enough time. Christian injured himself on a Friday night, Matt went in on Saturday, we waited a couple of days to see what was going to happen to Christian, but we just had to keep moving. By then, Matt had more than proven himself."

Greenberg couldn't say for sure how he altered O'Hara's original book. "This is, fundamentally, a new book," he declared. "I wrote it first 17 or 18 years ago for a production at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. This time, I worked off of my previous book — so I don't remember the show's original book that well any longer."

Talk about putting a note in a bottle and shoving it out to sea, his script traveled the long and circuitous route to Broadway: "I started it in early 1990, then it just started appearing and disappearing, there'd be a reading, all of a sudden an interview. The rights traveled among thousands of people till finally it came back to me when Joe became interested in it. Several books were floating around, and he chose mine."

The three key ladies in Joey's life — haughty socialite Vera Simpson (Channing), hard-boiled chorine Gladys Bumps (Martha Plimpton) and sweet young non-pro Linda English (Jenny Fellner) — have, courtesy of Greenberg, been allotted a full quiver of quips to ward off Joey's sleazy advances. In the case of Channing, whose imperiousness is on such a hilariously high plane, whole sentences aren't needed. She handily wins exit applause with the inflection of a single, archly pitched word.

"I think of her in amoral ways," Channing said of her Vera. "She may not have a lot of morals, but she's got a lot of ethics. She's tough, and she learns her lesson, but she has her strength and her brains. I tell you what: I sure wouldn't want to cross her."

The truly glamorous presence she presents on stage she credits to (1) her hair stylist, the inimitable Paul Huntley ("There are various styles for various times — she's formal in some, gloriously untidy in others," Huntley said. "She goes through several looks."), and (2) her costume designer, William Ivey Long, who has beaded her a Dietrichesque/Jean Louis dazzler for her entrance, slinking down a long spiral staircase shimmering in copper and silver sequins ("Bravo Jean Louis! All my life I've been dying to use that design idea for a show," Long gleefully confessed, "and I found it, and I did it!").

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All this, and she gets to sing "Bewitched" three times. "To do it justice, I try to treat it as if people, hopefully, are hearing it for the first time. It's such a gorgeous song." Plimpton, who has concealed her already highly advanced musical chops until now, really goes to town with "Zip," a production number in which her club singer, Gladys, plays a girl reporter recounting the intellectuals she has chatted up over the years, like Schopenhauer and Gypsy Rose Lee. Modestly, Plimpton passed the credit along to choreographer Graciela Daniele and conductor Paul Gemignani for making it happen. Whoever, her "Zip" is a trip.

The aging, been-around-the-block, tough-as-nail chorus girl is also something she hasn't done before. "I found her in Richard Greenberg's book and in John O'Hara's story," Plimpton said, "and I'd be lying if there wasn't a little Joan Blondell in there." And — from the look of her close-cropped, peroxide-blonde wig — Gladys George.

Fellner confessed she had no idea about the backstory of her Linda English. "I read the script for the first time at the audition, and Richard had already worked on it," she said. "That was nice because what I had was fresh. I didn't have any idea of what it used to be." Her training film — the 1957 flick — was no help. (Her role was turned into a showgirl so Kim Novak could sing "My Funny Valentine" from a different Rodgers and Hart show.) "I was, like, 'Wow! This is nothing like what we're doing.'"

In previous Pal Joeys, Ludlow Lowell was a gangster blackmailing Joey; now, he's an aging tenor who opens the second act with "The Flower Garden of My Heart," a frilly little dilly thing decorated with incidental chorines. "Joe really gave me one basic note for the number," said Daniel Marcus, who executes the part. "He said: 'I believe your character thinks the audience never looks at the girls.' I think that was perfect. The note that I made on my script was 'Every time I sing, it's my beautiful gift to the world.'"

Another secondary-character change is the "lavendering-up" of the nightclub boss, Mike. "Richard Greenberg rewrote the role," said Robert Clohessy, who, in any event, plays him ramrod straight, away from gay stereotype. "That might have been in the play earlier, but it would have been very closeted. But it's a nice arc, and he's a good character, a warm character. He's got conscience and wants to do the right thing."

The first of the first-nighters to reach the theatre came in a sleek white stretch-limo and made his way carefully with two canes into the house, pausing briefly for paparazzi shots. This was Adrian Bailey's third Broadway outing since he fell 20 feet through a trap door onto the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne just before the start of the May 10 matinee of The Little Mermaid. He was there to support an ensemble mermaid who had made it to Pal Joey's chorus line, Bahiya Sayyed Gaines.

Mary Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jon Robin Baitz, Keith Carradine, Andrea Martin, Nathan Lane, Randy Graff and Walter Bobbie, Cherry Jones, Mario Cantone, Denis O'Hare, Ruddie and Patricia Clarkson, Rob Ashford and Kathleen Marshall, Margaret Colin and Chita Rivera (
photos by Aubrey Reuben

Three other people with the show had faithful followers who can always be counted on to show up at their openings. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz, a longtime mainstay for director Mantello, was a particularly conspicuous pillar of support. Yes, he has a new play he's about to premiere — called Love and Mercy — but most of his energies right now are still going into television, "writing and producing a four-hour movie series for HBO called 'Bush's War,' which is about the selling of the war in Iraq." Also: Alexander Gemignani came over after his Road Show at The Public to celebrate with his conductor dad, Paul, and Keith Carradine materialized from his Mindgame at The SoHo Playhouse to sing proud-papa praises for Plimpton.

"I saw Martha's show last week at a matinee," said Working Dad. "I knew she could sing. I didn't know how well she could sing till I saw her performing with Julian Fleisher a few years ago. He had a cabaret act he was doing at Joe's Pub and other places, and he invited Martha up one night. She was so amazing they did it together for about a year. They came out to Los Angeles and performed every weekend for several months, and I was there every show. That's when I realized Martha is a huge vocal talent. I kept saying to her, 'When are you going to do a musical?'" Although Carradine starred in The Will Rogers Follies and wrote the Oscar-winning "I'm Easy" for "Nashville," he was quick to credit his daughter's slow-to-show musical skills to her mother, Shelley Plimpton, whom he met during the original run of Hair. "Shelley's a wonderful singer. 'Frank Mills' — I mean, that was magical."

Winding their way from the theatre to the opening party at the Marriott Marquis were Tony winners Cynthia Nixon, Nathan Lane, Jane Alexander, Andrea Martin and Randy Graff.

The families of Pal Joey's three fathers — the O'Haras, the Harts and the Rodgers — were honored guests of the evening, cheering the show's fifth Broadway coming.

Mary Rodgers, herself a Broadway composer (Once Upon a Mattress, Hot Spot) and the mother of another (Adam Guettel of The Light in the Piazza), still remembers her first brush with her father's Pal Joey. "It was the last happy Christmas for a long time," she said, "the last Christmas before the war."

But she didn't recall where she saw it (it opened at the Barrymore, moved to the Shubert and finished at the St. James). "I never know what theatre, and now there's no point in knowing the names of theatres because they change the names all the time."

Hart's nephew — son of actor Teddy Hart, one of Broadway's Three Men on a Horse — is also named Lorenz Hart and physically looks unmistakably all-Hart. "This is a whole different take on Pal Joey," he opted. "I have seen many productions of it, and, believe me, I have seen some pretty poor productions of this show, but this is one of the best. Even to this day, it's hard for people to get their hands around it because of the hard nature of the storyline, but Rodgers and Hart were at the top of their form."

The original Lorenz Hart is so beloved by contemporary lyricists that it was no wonder David Zippel had trouble finding his favorite line of the night. "Just pick your favorite, and attribute it to me," he threw out, knowing anything would work.

But Susan Birkenhead zeroed right in on the Gypsy Rose Lee lead-in to "Zip" as her choice — and sang it: "I've interviewed the Great Stravinsky / But my greatest achievement / Is the interview I had / With the star that worked for Minsky." Of course, come Jan. 4, she's off to the Ahmanson in Los Angeles to work with Charles Strouse and Bob Martin on a Broadway hopeful called, in point of fact, Minsky's.

If there is anything worse than losing one lead in Pal Joey, it's losing both leads right before previews — and that happened in 1976 when Paul Lubin was managing director of Circle in the Square. "I fired Eleanor Parker," he recalled. "She made some demands, and I said, 'If you don't get into your costume, you're going to be fired.' Joan Copeland took over her part, and she was fine." She was also Tony-nominated, and Parker has confined her acting to small-screen endeavors ever since.

Edward Villela, who was making his theatre-acting debut as that Pal Joey, exited before opening night as well. "We thought he had trouble dancing it," Lubin explained with no hint of irony. "No, really. He had a back injury and couldn't do it. Chris Chadman went on for him and was terrific. There was a lot of hoopla about it.

"One of the things I remember so well about that show was that Richard Rodgers came, and, when the show was over, he said, 'Really good job. I want to talk to the conductor.' So I ran and got the conductor, and Rodgers told him, 'Would you do me a favor? Would you play the music a little softer so we could hear the lyrics?'"

Other sightings: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, Dee Hoty and Actors' Equity prexy Mark Zimmerman, Mario Cantone and Jerry Dixon, Doug Hughes and Kate Jennings Grant, Katie Finneran and Darren Goldstein, Jerry Stiller (sans Anne Meara, who was at a memorial for an old friend and Uta Hagen classmate, Irene Dailey of Miss Lonelyhearts-The Subject Was Roses acclaim), Byron Jennings (sans Caroline McCormick, who's mothering Daniel Radcliffe in Equus), Dana Ivey, Jason Fuchs, Tony Roberts, Tony Walton, Anne Kaufman Schneider, Michael John LaChuisa (revving up to premiere his musical version of "Giant" at Arlington's Signature Theatre in late April), John Guare, T. Scott Cunningham, Bernard Gersten and Minsky's headliners Christopher Fitzgerald and Rachel Dratch.

Gleaned in passing: Gideon Glick (Ernst in Spring Awakening) has left the show for school; what he's working on now, he said, is "homework." . . .Margaret Colin is "up to here in 'Gossip Girl' and Mom things, getting ready for the holidays." . . . Debra Monk is playing a mom — Natalie Portman's — in "Love and Other Possible Pursuits," a movie now before the cameras in NYC, helmed by the writer-director of "The Opposite of Love," Don Roos. . . . Broadway's Tony-nominated Big Mama, Margo Martindale, "just finished a basketball movie in the city," but she wasn't a basketball mom. "I was the basketball coach!" . . . Cherry Jones, who has carried the feminist torch to the White House via TV's "24," is away from the Oval Office for a while but will return West for more episodes. "I'll be back in February," she said.

Family outings of the evening included The Sisters Clarkson, Patricia and Ruddie. The former, an early muse for Greenberg, has been focusing exclusively on film work of late — this year, two Penelope Cruz movies (Woody Allen's "Vicki Christina Barcelona" and Isabel Coixet's "Elegy"), "but we have no scenes together. I mean, if I were a man, I'd be so unhappy." Next up: "I finished a second Woody Allen, the one with Larry David called Whatever Works, and I shot a beautiful movie in Egypt called Cairo Time. The first comes out in June, and the second comes out in the fall. I'm probably going to start shooting in January or February, but it's not definite." . . . Karen Akers came with her mom — and a vested interest. "The night will come when my sister [Nicole Orth-Pallavicini] will be singing 'Bewitched,'" promised the chanteuse. "She's covering Stockard." In the meantime, Orth-Pallavicini will toil patiently on stage as a café patron. . . . Chita Rivera came with daughter Lisa Mordente and, when quizzed about what she was up to after her Feinstein's gig, announced, "I'm going to Disney World!" — and she wasn't kidding: "It's going to be exciting because I'm going to take my brother's grandchildren and Lisa, who is a Disney fanatic, and I'll end up reading The Christmas Story with 250 magnificent voices." . . . Legendary costumer Willa Kim arrived looking great and ageless, declaring, "That's what I'm up to!"

Lily Rabe and director David Grindley took the night off from preparing The American Plan for the Biltmore Jan. 22; it's Greenberg's second Broadway offering in less than a month, but who's counting? . . . Also attending were writer-director Moises Kaufman, who's bringing Jane Fonda back to Broadway in 33 Variations, and directors Walter Bobbie and John Doyle, currently represented on the scene with White Christmas and Road Show. . . . The directing fraternity was indeed well-represented on opening night: Rob Ashford, Mark Brokaw, Sam Buntrock, Alex Timbers, Walter Bobbie, Michael Greif and John Doyle and Kathleen Marshall.

The cast of <i>Pal Joey</i> take an opening night curtain call.
The cast of Pal Joey take an opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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