Boulevard’s first itinerant production is concert reading of ‘Pal Joey’

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Souvenir program from Pal Joey’s 1952 Broadway revival. — Photo: bayles-yeager

Here’s the big story about the Boulevard Theatre this season: After 29 years, the company has left its Bay View home on South Kinnickinnic Avenue to become an itinerant company.

But another big story about the group is its first show on the road is a resurrection of the long-neglected Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey, which is to be presented in a concert staging at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center.

Concert stagings, in which actors perform without costumes, sets or more than minimal blocking, are a specialty of the Boulevard. Artistic director Mark Bucher champions the approach as a compromise between a full, expensive staging and a mere reading in which the actors sit around a table. David Flores is directing the concert staging of Pal Joey, which he and Bucher selected after they kept circling back to it during a brainstorming session earlier this year.

“It’s both of its time and ahead of its time,” Flores says.

In many ways, Pal Joey is a musical that resembles the other work of Rodgers and Hart and their contemporaries (pre-World War II). It’s centered around a powerful romance, its songs (including standards like “I Could Write a Book” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”) are jazzy and linguistically clever, and its lead role required the dancing skills of no less than Gene Kelly in its original production. 

But it’s where the comparisons end that reveals the obstacles Pal Joey faced when it premiered in 1940 to widespread panning by critics — including a New York Times writer who famously asked about the play, “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” The titular “hero” is a womanizing nightclub performer willing to do whatever it takes to get his big break, including embark on an affair with the play’s female lead, Vera, a married socialite with a string of lovers. Those jazzy tunes and lyrics are so sexually frank that they widened the eyes of the era’s Broadway theatergoers.

And most importantly, there’s no happy ending for its protagonist.

In retrospect, the show was merely ahead of its time, Flores says. A string of acclaimed revivals supports his assertion. But with each successive production, directors have made changes to the play’s structure and plot, changing it into a completely different show, according to Flores.

“The most recent revival’s score and book bore no resemblance to the original,” Flores says. “I wanted to present the original and let that do all the talking.”

The concert staging helps. Flores says it allows him to focus on the dialogue and songs with a minimal amount of blocking and dance. He says he’ll preserve some of the Boulevard Theatre’s intimacy by seating the audience on the SMPAC stage along with the performers. Each of the 100 seats per performance provides an up-close and personal view.

Marty McNamee, who plays Joey in Boulevard’s production, says concert stagings allow actors and directors to recreate shows in the format in which they were originally developed. Focusing on the basics makes audiences do the same.

McNamee thinks Pal Joey’s greatest merits come from its unflinching, unglamorous depiction of Joey’s imperfect lifestyle, and how it affects him. He may bounce between women like Vera (Diane Lane) or a naive stenographer (Alexandra Bonesho) as if he’s completely immune to emotions, but McNamee says all that back-and-forth just drives home Joey’s crushing loneliness.

Boulevard’s 2014–15 season

Pal Joey is only breezing through for a weekend, but the group has much more planned for its first itinerant season. Other productions scheduled include:

Gidion’s Knot, at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts (Oct. 3-12): This two-woman, 90-minute drama cuts deep into issues of education quality, bullying and teen suicide in its depiction of a parent-teacher conference between a grieving mother and an uncertain teacher. 

A Child’s Christmas in Wales, at Plymouth Church (Dec. 13-14): Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ romanticized retelling of a childhood Christmas will be staged as a prose-play hybrid. Also on the bill is the Plymouth Chorale performing the Robert Frost-themed song cycle Frostiana.

RX, TBD (April 10-26): A pharmaceutical farce, RX follows a woman who signs up for a drug trial that should make her fall in love with her job, but makes her fall for the doctor instead. 

Onstage

The Boulevard Theatre’s production of Pal Joey plays at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 26, and Sept. 27, and at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 28. Tickets are $20. Call 414-706-5049 or go to southmilwaukeepac.org. Seating is limited to 100 patrons per show.

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