With a combination of the music of Rodgers and Hart, along with a look at the relationship between power and sex, a new version of the musical Pal Joey opens the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s 38th season this weekend.
The world premiere musical is being described as a “reconceived version” of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Pal Joey, which debuted in 1940, but is perhaps best known as a 1957 film that starred Frank Sinatra.
Songs from the 1940 production which include “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book,” plus other Rodgers and Hart classics, “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Glad To Be Unhappy” and “Sing for Your Supper,” propel the musical, which has a new book by Patrick Pacheco, based on the short stories and original libretto by John O’Hara.
Peter Schneider, who won a Tony Award as the producer of The Lion King on Broadway, is directing Pal Joey. He spent 17 years at the Walt Disney Co., first as head of the animation department in 1985 and later head of the movie studio in 1999. He produced an award-winning 2009 documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty, which told the story of Disney animation from 1984-94.
“We’ve been working on it for about five and a half years,” says Schneider of Pal Joey. “It’s an interesting study on charismatic men, who are ambitious and talented, whatever their flaws might be. In reconceiving the play, we reduced the cast from 25 to 12, adding a new character, Ted, and gave the show more of a jazzy be-bop feeling.”
The play is set in 1948 in post-World War II America, where there was a booming economy and new found hope for black Americans, thanks to President Harry Truman’s integrating the armed forces and the arrival of Jackie Robinson marking the end of all white major league baseball.
Pacheco, who wrote the show’s book (and also wrote Waking Sleeping Beauty for Schneider), considers Pal Joey to be all about connection and people’s universal desire to connect.
“Everybody in this play wants to connect because to connect means to be seen,” Pacheco says. “It’s in the collision of all that sex, ambition, love and longing that makes Pal Joey such a potboiler of emotion, that makes the journey that every character embarks on in this play such a slippery slope.
“Their songs are all about yearning … Joey is a revolutionary - he doesn’t know his place. He’s going to change his place. And in that he is the quintessential American. We are an optimistic people. It’s part of our DNA. And it’s a quintessential part of the American musical: Gypsy, Funny Girl, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Pal Joey. All these musicals have a main character who is saying: ‘Everything’s coming up roses,’ ‘I’m the greatest star,’ ‘I believe in you’ and, in Joey’s case, ‘ I’m gonna own a nightclub, I’m going to be noticed!’”
The show centers on Joey, a young black entertainer; Ted, a jazz-loving white pianist in the Chicago nightclub where the show is staged; Vera, a young, rich white woman, and Linda, a black working girl.
The cast features Jonas Cohen as Ted, Erica Hanrahan-Ball as Vera, Stephanie Umoh as Linda and Clifton Oliver as Joey.
“There is a conflict between the two female characters, but we come to a resolution,” Umoh says. “The show is the literary definition of romantic, I’d say. It’s the most beautiful thing, and for every character, the stakes are high.”
Cohen, who plays Ted, notes that the O’Hara stories on which the show is based were written to an unseen friend named Ted.
“Maybe he envied Ted, who wasn’t the sharpest guy,” Cohen says. “He always signed his letters, ‘Your pal Joey.’ We now know that Ted was based on Lorenz Hart, the lyric writer, who once said, ‘I could have been a genius, if I cared.’ He didn’t believe in himself enough to really let his art fly.”
The Rep’s producing artistic director, Bob Hupp, and the cast will engage in a panel discussion of the play in the Clinton School of Public Service’s Distinguished Speaker Series, from noon to 1 p.m. today. For reservations, call the school, 1200 President Clinton Ave., at (501) 683-5239.
Hupp and Schneider will discuss the musical from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m. today before the play’s preview performance at 7 p.m.
7 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 29, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Sixth and Main streets, Little Rock
Preview performance: 7 p.m. today with pre-show director’s talk from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m.
Tickets: $30-$60; ($5 off advance purchases through today)
Sign-interpreted performance for the hearing impaired: Wednesday (Sept. 11 only)
Weekend, Pages 36 on 09/05/2013
Print Headline: Rep staging ‘reconceived’ ’40s musical Pal Joey