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Eugene Weekly : Theatre : 6.23.11

 

Lessons in Lounge Lizardry

Reflections on OFAMs Pal Joey

By Anna Grace

Joey (Bill Hulings) and Vera (Siri Vik) in Pal Joey

Two-bit affairs, a bored socialite, a nightclub emcee wannabe, a whole gaggle of dissatisfied chorus girls and a straight-laced, strip-teasing reporter- ã Pal Joey is not your average musical. Based on a series of short stories by John OHara, it follows the dreams and failures of a charmingly self-centered young opportunist working his way through the Chicago nightclub scene.

"If it is possible to make an entertaining musical comedy out of an odious story, Pal Joey is it,” said a 1940 New York Times review. That was far and away the kindest commentary. Pal Joey has been revived off and on since then with moderate success. It has a few truly great songs, a lot of good music and some seriously messed up characters. You probably havent heard of it because its a tough show. Its hard to identify with the leads; the plot is dismal yet couched in fun song and dance numbers. Essentially, its the As You Like It of musical theater: too good to be gathering dust on the stacks, too difficult to stage often.

Thus OFAM offers us an In-Concert experience. Less expensive and with greater focus on the music, it was advertised as having "everything but the set.” But with actors reading lines off music stands and a full orchestra on stage, some aspects of the production were very much enriched while others suffered.

The music was a first-rate treat. So often when musicals are staged purely for their entertainment value we forget that there is great music slipping out from somewhere behind a curtain. Not so with an In-Concert production. Having the orchestra assembled on the stage with Robert Ashens conducting brought the focus back to the music and allowed us to really appreciate what we were hearing. Part of the mission of OFAM is to perform great American classics in their original context. "Bewitched” is the big song here, but there are so many other wonderful numbers that I may have overlooked as merely steps towards resolving a plot had the musical been performed in a traditional manner.

The effect of the In-Concert production on the acting was fascinating. While I think many of the simpler characters of the early American musical would hold up well in a concert setting, Pal Joey happens to house two extremely complex human souls. Bill Hulings, although wonderfully charming, just wasnt sleazy enough. Similarly consummate show-woman Siri Vik made a delightfully edgy society maven, but did not have the time to soften Veras sharp edge and give the character a delicacy that had not yet been decayed by money and beauty.

On the other hand, the actors playing the comedic leads were able to really let loose in this easy setting. Erica Jean as the dour, bespectacled newswoman who lets it all hang out, Melba Snyder, was fabulous. Laura Sue Hiszczynskyj was tearing about having a great time as the havoc-wreaking chorus girl Gladys Bumbs. These two almost made it impossible for Chas King to steal the show, but he rallied in a red hat and striped suit as the slick and very quick talking Ludlow Lowell, an "artists representative.”

This In-Concert production boasted fabulous choreography and occasional set pieces for musical numbers. While I wouldnt pass up Richard H. Jessups choreography for anything, it was a little disconcerting to watch actors step around their scripts and break out into a dance at the front of the stage. Yet, the chatter and discontent of the chorus girls and the authenticity of their movement completely enriched the rehearsal hall feel of the production.

"Its interesting, once you get over the music stands,” I overheard an audience member comment. As a community, we need to get over them. In-Concert productions are a great way to bring little-known works to Eugene audiences, if we can get our expectations straight.

Ultimately, theater can best be judged by a productions ability to make us feel acutely and sweep us up in its world, and on how it leads us to think. As with all OFAM productions, I walked out a little bit smarter, my understanding of American music being carefully enriched summer after summer. I was not so much pulled into the story as I was invited to float in its music for a while, the misguided dreams of a socialite and a scammer sitting in my heart.