'Pal Joey'

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Stockard Channing steals the new Broadway revival of "Pal Joey," the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical noir about Chicago nightlife.

As Vera Simpson, the rich dame who takes up with "pint-sized" nightclub MC Joey Evans (Matthew Risch), Channing brings sleekness, wit and sexual suggestiveness. Her understated rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," sung in bed after Vera's night between the sheets with the much younger Joey, is one of those rare, breathtaking moments in the theater.

The production itself, imaginatively and forcefully directed by Joe Mantello, will draw both fervid supporters and adamant naysayers.

John O'Hara's book has been rewritten by Richard Greenberg, mostly for the better. Among other things, he has brought back Joey's haunting number "I'm Talkin' to My Pal," dropped from the original show. Unfortunately, Greenberg also has handed Rodgers and Hart's clever striptease "Zip" to the over-the-hill chorine Gladys Bumps (Martha Plimpton), and she turns this elegant item into a farcical send-up.

But to everyone's credit, this is a far sexier and more adult "Pal Joey" than its creators dared present back in 1940 or for the first major revival in 1952.

Now it is pretty clear that Joey beds the good-hearted Linda English (Jenny Fellner), and he boasts fairly bluntly about his sexual equipment. And Mike (Robert Clohessy), the nightclub owner who hires Joey, is now gay.

The show's anti-hero is also a lot darker. This Joey is a sexual predator: His moments of vulnerability, not to mention charm, are almost nonexistent.

Risch is a dynamic dancer, but his singing is strained, and his portrayal tends toward the one-dimensional. His Joey is all bad-boy: fierce, awkward and angry from start to finish.

But this is a bleak, harsh world that Mantello has staged beneath Chicago's looming elevated train. If Risch would just loosen up and roll back the hard sell, this fresh revival could be a hit. (partialdiff)
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