Playwright: John O'Hara (book), Richard Rodgers (music), Lorenz Hart (lyrics). At: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 1-773-327-5252; www.stage773.com; $39. Runs through: May 26
John O'Hara (1905-1970) is acknowledged to have been a conservative curmudgeon and blowhard self-promoter. Critics consider him a great writer or a third-rater depending on their tolerance for his personality, but his popular success as novelist and short story writer is beyond dispute.
O'Hara also had a deep understanding of the popular music of his day, much of it originating in Broadway musicals. When George Gershwin passed away in 1937, O'Hara famously wrote "George Gershwin died today but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to." Three years later he partnered on Pal Joey with the only song-writing team the equal of Gershwin and his brother (Ira) who wrote lyrics: composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. It was the last Rodgers and Hart show as Hart, a self-loathing gay man, drank himself to an early death (at 48 in 1943).
Pal Joey was a hit O'Hara novel written as a series of letters. In scripting the Broadway musical adaptation, O'Hara completely abandoned the epistolary form and fashioned an exemplary musical theater book: fast-moving, tight and cracking-wise, while Rodgers and Hart provided short, punchy songs with virtually more than over three minutes long. In so doing, they gave Broadway its first-ever antihero: charming heel Joey Evans, a singer/dancer (the role made Gene Kelly a star), schemer and user of women who is lucky to walk away without his fleet legs broken. Set in Chicago, Pal Joey also was sexually frank for its time.
Pal Joey rarely is revived today and when it is producers often rewrite it in some way. Refreshingly, this production uses O'Hara's original script, which proves such revisions wholly unnecessary. Under director Michael Weber, choreographer Brenda Didier and musical director Douglas Peck, Pal Joey is a sparkling, brash, jazzy gem of a show with a near-perfect cast, seamlessly-integrated period-style dance integral to the enterprise and crisply-played and sung numbers, among them "I Could Write a Book" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."
Adrian Aguilar is ideal as Joey, the brash two-bit entertainer with good looks and big dreams. He's so right for the role that I wish he had more dancing. The women he loves, after a fashion, are "good" girl Linda and worldly-wise older woman Vera, played and sung with verve and longing by Laura Savage and Susie McMonagle respectively. Among the capable secondary players, two stand out to particular advantage: Jim Heatherly crooning the comic "In the Flower Garden of My Heart" and Callie Johnson letting her hair down in the witty striptease show-stopper, "Zip." The six-piece band cooks (especially trumpeter Derek Fitting) under conductor Jeremy Kahn.
Musical theater doesn't get much better, especially on such a delightful intimate scale. Catch Pal Joey now and dig it later.