Ephraim Sykes, one of Broadway’s top song-and-dance men, starred as Joey Evans in “Pal Joey,” which ended its half-week run today as part of the New York City Center Encores! Concert series.
He was one of the six superb principal cast members with golden voices, with standouts including
Loretta Devine (one of the original Dreamgirls along with Jennifer Holiday and Sheryl Lee Ralph) as a nightclub owner who gives Joey a job,
Aisha Jackson (a stand-out as Snow White in the recent Once Upon a One More Time) as the sweet singer Linda English who falls for the cad,
and Elizabeth Stanley as the wealthy heiress Vera Simpson with whom Joey has an affair. It’s Stanley who gets to sing “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” the best-known song in the 1940 musical with a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
Some dozen exquisite ensemble members offered some eye-catching moves in tap, African dance and some sexy stomping, all choreographed by Savion Glover, the greatest and funkiest tap dancer of his generation, who was also one of the dancers in the show, and co-directed it with Tony Goldwyn, and was given an additional credit in the program for “additional arrange orchestrology.”)
I’m certainly glad I attended. But it wasn’t “Pal Joey.”
I don’t say this because the original libretto by John O’Hara, based on his short stories , has been reworked by Richard LaGravenese and Daniel “Koa” Beaty. Most noticeably, they changed Joey Evans’ race, and highlighted from the get-go the discrimination he has faced as a Black artist in 1940s Chicago:
White bandleader: My customers don’t go for your kind of singer. They’re more of the Bing Crosby crowd.
Joey: Bing Crosby sounds like us! Where do you think he got it from? I can sing any way you need:
White bandleader: Look, I can’t hire a Negro singer.
This does make Joey’s pursuit of recognition seem less selfish; much of the African dance is performed by griots articulating the spirit of Joey’s quest. The change also alters the dynamic of his affair with the wealthy Vera, who remains white in this production.
But most of the characters are more or less the same, and it’s not as if the original script is what was ever most acclaimed about the show. O’Hara’s only Broadway credit, the script reportedly underwent a major doctoring from the original director George Abbott. And still, because Joey was such a heel, one of the most infamous lines in theater history comes from critic Brooks Atkinson initial review of the show: ‘Although Pal Joey is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?’”
It’s worth noting that the original 1940 Broadway production of “Pal Joey” starred Gene Kelly in his first major role; the character was a dancer, and much of the story was told through dance. The 1957 screen adaptation changed that, turning Joey, portrayed by Frank Sinatra, into a singer (Rita Hayworth was Vera, and Kim Novak was Linda.) So much for the sanctity of the script. One might even argue that Savion Glover’s involvement is an act of restoration.
But that argument won’t get very far, because it’s the Rodgers and Hart score that garnered “Pal Joey” the most acclaim; it is widely considered the best of the dozens of shows they wrote together.
Yet, of the 22 Rodgers and Hart songs at the performance I attended (a slightly altered playlist from what’s printed in the playbill) only six were in the original 1940 Broadway production of “Pal Joey.” (At least one song, “What do I care for a dame” aka “Pal Joey” was added in later productions.) The Encores! production didn’t use the seven other songs in the original score, and added promiscuously from the Rodgers and Hart songbook: “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” from their 1937 musical Babes in Arms, “Falling in Love with Love” and “This Can’t Be Love” from their 1938 show The Boys from Syracuse. The shoehorning in of all these songs turns the musical into a musical revue.
The orchestrator Daryl Waters did not do any kind of disservice to these extra songs. Sykes’ rendition of “Blue Moon” may have been the most heavenly – certainly the jazziest – I’ve heard, and am only sorry he interrupted himself for a tirade, which had something to do with the plot, although I don’t know what exactly (“…I know what y’all came here for. You came for some pretty singing. Some nice, easy dancin. Well I ain’t pretty. I ain’t easy. I’m not some top hat wearing, cane twirling motherfucker…”)
As I say, I enjoyed this Evening with the Songs of Rodgers and Hart, as they could have named it, and can only hope that the Encores! concert means they’ve changed their mind about the announcement they made two years ago that this “Pal Joey” is heading for Broadway.