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Opportunist meets shrewd socialite, and his match, in Porchlight’s vivacious ‘Pal Joey’

Submitted by on May 1, 2013 – 5:39 pm

Review: “Pal Joey,” with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics and Lorenz Hart and book by John O’Hara. Produced by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773 through May 26 ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Joey Evans, iconic anti-hero of the Rodgers and Hart musical “Pal Joey,” is a nightclub song-and-dance man with more ambition than talent, a charming Don Juan with an eye for career shortcuts. This fascinating portrait of the artist as delusional loser is now on display at Porchlight Music Theatre, in a production charged with in-your-face energy and underpinned with poignant wit.

There’s a lot to love about Porchlight’s intimate perspective, from the dynamism of Michael Weber’s stage direction to the 1930s Chicago razzle invoked by music director Doug Peck and choreographer Brenda Didier. But ultimately “Pal Joey” hangs on the style and chemistry of the two characters at its center – that manipulative cad and Vera Simpson, the rich, middle-aged society matron who rents Joey’s boudoir bounty for the price of setting him up in his own nightclub.

Adrian Aguilar’s Joey is a self-interested creep, a self-aggrandizing heel who begs to be despised. You half expect him – meaning this guy we’ve come to identify with Joey — to draw boos at curtain call. But, nah, Aguilar is such an adept actor, accomplished singer and able dancer that the audience can’t help showering him with richly deserved applause.

If Joey just can’t help himself, can’t play straight with anyone if some angle might give him an edge, worldly wise Vera Simpson – his, well, patroness – is always in control. And that’s the beauty of Susie McMonagle’s closely articulated performance.

McMonagle’s Vera, as experienced and sophisticated as she is needy of a handsome young man to deny her gathering years and fading charms, holds all the cards all the time. Her ruminative treatment of the show’s best song, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” may be the plaint of a woman all too aware of time’s progress, but it’s the same wise lady who eventually joins with Joey’s other girl on the string in the dismissive lyric “Take Him.”

That other gal is the sheltered shop girl Linda, played with rosy blush and winning grace by Laura Savage. At the top of the show, in the might-be-love-at-first-sight duet “I Could Write a Book,” Aguilar’s oily Joey and Savage’s honeyed Linda strike a sentimental harmony to make a stone sigh. But it’s really a mismatch between a lothario always on the move and this sweet little sitting duck.

Well-drawn secondary characters season Porchlight’s musical stew. Matt Orlando makes a slick, dryly funny thug as Ludlow Lowell, the small-time gangster who thinks he can shake down wealthy Vera for some big bucks. He is so wrong. Sharriese Hamilton showcases a bundle of talents as Gladys Bumps – singer, dancer, girl of the lower world, witless consort of Ludlow Lowell. Nobody in the show has more musical numbers than Gladys, and Hamilton makes every one of them pop.

But for pure fun factor, nothing tops Callie Johnson’s turn as dowdy, bespectacled nightlife reporter Melba Snyder. Her interview with Joey looks like it might win a Pulitzer Prize for boring when Melba begins to recall some of the biggest stars she ever profiled, among them Gypsy Rose Lee. And with that, our Ms. Frump is out on the floor, specs off and hair down, to illustrate in the hilarious “Zip.” Show stolen, forget about it.

If the playing area at Stage 773 is small, the big song-and-dance numbers in “Pal Joey” seem to explode from sheer compression. These guys and dolls use every inch in their crisp ‘30s routines. Bill Morey’s sexy costumes sharpen the aura of time, place and perhaps quiet despair.

In such a space, economy counts in set design, and William Boles’ two-level layout gives the dancers room to strut while providing the band with a loft to lay down its high-powered sound. Kudos as well to lighting designers Nick Belley and Greg Hofmann, whose colorful illuminations constantly punch up the fun and underline the drama.

That’s my synopsis of this delightful evening of theater. But if I had the time, believe me, I could write a book.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Adrian Aguilar as Joey Evans and Susie McMonagle as Vera Simpson in “Pal Joey” at Porchlight Music Theatre. Descending: Full of big plans, Joey (Adrian Aguilar) hits Chicago to test the club scene. Smooth talking Joey (Adrian Aguilar) soon has shop girl Linda (Laura Savage) all aglow. Gladys Bumps (Sharriese Hamilton) blazes in the spotlight. The party’s over when wealthy Vera (Susie McMonagle) decides she’s seen enough of Joey (Adrian Aguilar). (Photos by Brandon Dahlquist)

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