“Pal Joey” was a modestly successful Broadway play in 1940 revived on the big screen in 1957. And now it’s back more than five decades later — with some major plot revisions — in a world-premiere run to kick off the 38th season at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
We never saw the movie but can’t imagine it could be anywhere close to as compelling as the new version, the brainchild of director Peter Schneider, who could safely be called “legendary” based on his blockbuster resume, which includes producing “The Lion King” on Broadway and for 17 years leading the Disney team that created a gaggle of classic films.
In Schneider’s version — which he’s been working on for 5 and a half years — Joey is black and the play is set in 1948, a time of post-World War II optimism and glimmers of hope for black Americans to have a shot at success in a still-white-dominated business world. It seems like a no-brainer: We couldn’t imagine Joey not being black and the play packing the same punch.
Joey (Clifton Oliver) is a singer with as much or more ambition and ego than talent starring at a semi-struggling club. The fact he’s black creates much of the plot’s context and tension as the white cast members adapt to supporting a black star and as the club’s patrons — particularly the drunk ones — adjust to something many of them had never seen, especially in a “white” club. The tension accelerates rapidly when Joey brings Linda (Stephanie Umoh), a black waitress he’s sweet on, and her black co-worker from a diner to the club and plops them down at a front table in better seats than the white patrons occupy.
Later, Joey engages in an affair with Vera (Erica Hanrahan-Ball), a wealthy, married, white woman who buys the club, which is renamed Chez Joey, a dream-come-true for the now owner/star whose decision-making quickly takes a turn for the worse — personally and professionally.
The race-related tension more often than not is subtle, which is effective, and every character is developed fully, including the other singers/dancers in the show and especially Ted (Jonas Cohen), a character new to this version of the musical and based on Lorenz Hart, the lyricist in the famed Rodgers and Hart duo. Ted serves as the narrator, tying together the plot as he wrestles with his role as the piano player at the club and a relationship with Joey we learn more about late in the play.
The action is engaging, and the cast is talented across the board. A bonus of course — a major bonus — is all the great singing and dancing of classic Rodgers and Hart tunes, many carried over from the original “Pal Joey” and others plucked from the vast Rodgers and Hart catalog and plugged into this play unobtrusively.
Interestingly, Oliver — while the compelling star of the show — is arguably the least accomplished as a vocalist. His voice is clear, on pitch and pleasant but doesn’t soar like every one of his co-stars’ voices do. But that’s more of an observation than a complaint. The development of the Joey-Linda relationship isn’t given much attention. One minute they are just meeting; the next they are an item; it’s a bit jarring.
The stellar house band is right on stage, fully exposed when playing numbers in the club and behind a translucent curtain when playing other songs — a nice approach.
“Pal Joey” runs through Sept. 24. Performances are 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 to $55.