By Judith Cookis Rubens
Charmer Joey Evans is your best pal. He’ll flirt, laugh, compliment — especially if he thinks you can help him get ahead. Make no mistake, though, he’s out for himself and anyone who gets too close is bound to be disappointed.
That’s how this bad boy hero from the classic 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical “Pal Joey” is re-imagined in the Barn Theatre’s current revival.
On Broadway, with Gene Kelly, (and in the 1957 movie with a suave Frank Sinatra), Joey is a nightclub crooner with a dream of owning and headlining his own club. That Joey was held back by lack of talent. In this version, Joey is a talented black singer in 1948 Chicago, and it’s mostly his skin color holding him back. So he uses what he knows – sex – to gain power in an unequal world.
And (hint hint) it’s not just women he’s willing to use. This Joey finds pleasure and power in conquests over both sexes, which adds another layer of interest and challenge to this steamy update.
The story’s heart is Joey’s attraction to simple beauty Linda (guest artist Annette Moore), complicated by his fear of commitment. Led by his ambition and womanizer ways, Joey falls into the arms of married white socialite, Vera (Emmy-winning soap star Kim Zimmer). Vera’s his ticket to club ownership, and soon the lines between business and pleasure get blurred.
Years in the making, this Barn premiere sprinkles in other Rodgers and Hart songs besides the show’s original hits, including “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Musical numbers are smartly woven into the re-written book by New York writer Patrick Pacheco. It’s a thoroughly modern thematic update, yet the songs, set and costumes still ooze the ’40s. It’s a mostly dynamic combination.
Well-paired director Peter Schneider (former Barnie, Broadway producer and longtime Walt Disney exec) and musical supervisor Michael Reno (another former Barnie) certainly take a few risks with this revival.
Act One takes a bit too long to heat up, but it finally gets cooking with the ensemble’s rousing ode to sexual conquests, “Happy Hunting Horn,” and Vera’s powerful “What is a Man?”
Guest artist Joseph Anthony Byrd is an energetic, smooth dancer and pleasing vocalist, but he fails to give Joey the easygoing, likable charisma that should attract everyone. His descent into angry narcissist is more believable, and he does have some strong scenes with pianist pal Teddy. (Their jazz scatting in “Sing for Your Supper” is nicely done).
Zimmer shines as commanding yet love-weary Vera, and her “Bewitched” has us taking notice.
But it’s Kevin Robert White, as narrator/pianist/pal Teddy, who masterfully guides this production from start to finish with wry commentary, swagger and smooth vocals.
Moore, as trusting Linda, comes alive in her musical solos, notably “You Mustn’t Kick It Around.”
Injecting plenty of pizzazz and comic relief are chorus girls Trixie, Val and Gladys (Emily Fleming, Julie Grisham, and Amy Harpenau, respectively). Fleming’s ditzy Trixie is silly fun, while first-year apprentice Grisham has a big payoff in her reprise of “That Terrific Rainbow.” Harpenau shines brightest as showgirl Gladys, the closest thing to a moral compass in this show. Her strip-teasing “Rainbow” is bold and brilliant.
Jamey Grisham’s sexy choreography is white-hot, and the entire cast pulls off some tricky numbers. Reno’s arranges beautiful music and the cast does it justice.
Sadly, some sound problems on opening night (mic glitches among them) contributed to an uneven debut. With so much new material, there’s bound to be some missteps.
While Joey’s and Linda’s racial hurdles are addressed quite seamlessly in Act One, the cultural tension seems to have suddenly melted away by Act Two. And, while two women and a man fighting over the same man would have been shockingly bold to address in 1948, Linda and Ted do it rather nonchalantly in the interesting, but oddly performed song, “Glad to Be Unhappy.”
Despite those bothersome elements, the Barn’s “Pal Joey” is a bold, bewitching update with great style and lots to say.
Barn Theatre, 13351 W. M-96, Augusta. Tuesday-Sunday through July 1. 165 minutes. $34. 269-731-4121. http://www.barntheatre.com