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Shows Worth Seeing:


Pal Joey
By Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
New book by Richard Greenberg
Studio 54
254 W. 54th St.
Box office: (212) 719-1300

Joe Mantello’s new production of Rodgers and Hart’s final collaboration, Pal Joey, makes a strong case for the contemporaneity of a musical now almost 70 years old. The smartest thing the producers did was ask the playwright Richard Greenberg to rewrite Hart’s book. Greenberg has the perfect louche sense of humor to keep this gritty story skipping along without sacrificing its bite. The original book really was dated in its handling of sexual naughtiness, and since the title character’s caddish behavior is the pivot of the plot, that was a serious problem. Greenberg’s punchy update is true to the essence of the work and shows up how unsparing the original plot was. At bottom, it’s a play about hopelessness and desperate self-delusion—truly proto-Sondheim in its focus on complex destructive psychology and its lack of a happy ending. Matthew Risch, the understudy who became Mantello’s headliner when Christian Hoff was injured in rehearsals, is perfectly adequate but not stellar as Joey Evans, the Depression-era club-performer and cad who never learns his lesson and never gets his comeuppance. And that’s as it should be. The character was written to be second-rate. The casting of dazzling stars like Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in the past actually distorted the story. Combine the accidental boon of Risch’s casting, then, with beautifully nuanced performances by Stockard Channing, Jenny Fellner and Martha Plimpton (in her musical debut) in the key female roles, and terrific work by Graciela Daniele as choreographer and Scott Pask as set designer, and you’ve got a very powerful mixture. This show seems to me the best revival of the season so far.



Billy Elliot: the Musical
Directed by Stephen Daldry, Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John
Imperial Theatre

249 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Curiously enough, this eagerly awaited musical adaptation of the movie Billy Elliot is almost as good as its hype. The story about a boy from a gritty northern English coal-mining town who discovers a passion for ballet was always irresistibly charming—just the sort of triumph-against-the-odds, home-town-boy fairytale Hollywood got rich on. The British adaptors of this show have been unusually clever, though, in giving the tale strong theatrical legs. Elton John’s rousing anthems and ballads pull all the right heartstrings to make the audience cheer for both the boy’s success and the victory of the union in the 1980s miners’ strike that forms the play’s social background. But since that strike ultimately failed—the Thatcher government famously broke the union—the play’s impassioned cries of “solidarity” have decidedly funereal overtones, and the story of the boy’s individual triumph has particular poignancy against the bitter failure of his loved ones’ collective action. This incongruity gives the work a modest political complexity that other Cinderella stories lack. The show is also wonderfully inventive. Director Stephen Daldry (who also directed the movie) has inserted bizarrely fluid choruses of cops and miners, for instance, who spread their good and bad energy willy-nilly while sweeping through windows, gyms and kitchens. At one point, Billy dances a strangely anomalous pas de deux with his imagined older self, who seems to provide the only viable adult role model he can muster. There are half a dozen inspired creations of this kind, as well as superb performances by (among others): Haydn Gwynne, who finds just the right mixture of stoniness and congealed syrup for Billy’s dance teacher; Carole Shelley as his wacked out grandmother; and the three child-actors who play Billy (I saw Kiril Kulish). It feels decidedly odd to endorse a blockbuster London import in this way, but, well, this show deserves to be seen.



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