It’s not often that the standout star of a show is its music supervisor, arranger or orchestrator, but in the gala presentation of “Pal Joey” at New York City Center through Sunday, all three are one man, Daryl Waters. More than the authors of the ambitious, bewildering revival’s new book, Waters, who has served similar roles on musicals as varied as “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk,” “After Midnight,” “The Cher Show” and “New York, New York,” makes a clear case in beautiful sound for its investigation into the melting pot of American music.
That the rest of the revival (really a new creature, made from spare parts) is more suggestive than convincing is no crime; there has never been a satisfactory “Pal Joey.” Though the 1940 original featured some soon-to-be standards by Rodgers and Hart — “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” chief among them — its book by John O’Hara, based on his epistolary novel and New Yorker stories, didn’t match them in tone or dramatic serviceability.
Back then, the problem was thought to be the nature of Joey himself, a greasy heel trying to scheme his way from itinerant crooner to supper club smoothie. Along the way he picked up and discarded an innocent named Linda English, traded sex for financial support with a socialite named Vera Simpson and generally ruined everything he touched with his grifty hands. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson concluded that the show was distasteful because you couldn’t “draw sweet water from a foul well.”
But the rise and triumph of the antihero show, with protagonists like J. Pierrepont Finch, Sweeney Todd and Evan Hansen, has since proved such characters ripe for musicalization. The problem faced by the various would-be saviors of “Pal Joey” — there were Broadway revivals in 1952, 1963, 1976 and 2008 — is rather what new throughline to impose and how to make the best use of its songs.
In choosing to alter the racial frame of the story, the current version’s adapters, Richard LaGravenese and Daniel Koa Beaty, have made a powerful and promising intervention. Their Joey (Ephraim Sykes) is Black, with the tortured soul of a true artist. The Chicago club in which he sings is now a Black establishment, run by Lucille Wallace (Loretta Devine), a former star of Harlem nightspots. Linda (Aisha Jackson) is a Black singer, too, but one who prefers radio to live performance so as to be “judged by what people hear, not by what they see.”
That is all worth exploring, and sometimes succeeds in snapping the tired old setups into vivid life. Because Vera (Elizabeth Stanley) is still white, her dalliance with Joey takes on new overtones and evokes new dangers. Though Joey remains acquisitive of both women and wealth, and Sykes, a Tony nominee for “Ain’t Too Proud,” is excellent at making his cunning charismatic, he is no longer shallow. Instead he’s deep, trying to find a way to render his true voice in a white world. Ancestral spirits who, according to the script, represent “soul, authenticity, power and freedom,” encourage him through percussive sound and movement; the often-astonishing choreography, part tap, part stomp, part African dance, is by Savion Glover.
Interesting as all this is, or could be with further time and elaboration, race was the wrong problem to solve in “Pal Joey.” What really never worked, and still does not, is the way the songs hang with the story. Innovators though they were, Rodgers and Hart had only just begun to explore, as Rodgers would continue to do much more deeply with Oscar Hammerstein II, how to make song an expression of narrative itself, not just a character sketch or appliquéd decoration. In particular, Hart’s delightful lyrics (“I’m vexed again./Perplexed again./Thank God I can be oversexed again”) kept pulling focus from the show’s heart of darkness with their sparky wit.
The new “Pal Joey” doubles down on that problem. Not counting two reprises, it features all or parts of 21 songs, only seven of which were written for “Pal Joey.” (Another eight of the originals were cut.) Because the added songs come from a variety of other shows, mostly “The Boys From Syracuse” and “Babes in Arms,” these are naturally even more decorative and disengaged than the originals. It does nothing to turn the vanishingly minor Melba Snyder — a society reporter who sings (and strips to) the great but obviously shoehorned “Zip” — into Melvin Snyder (Brooks Ashmanskas), who bravely does the same. You still have no idea why the character is there.
On the other hand, the giant and varied new tunestack — including standards like “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Blue Moon” — gives Waters some gorgeous raw material to work with. It’s a mystery to me how he creates so many conflicting kinds of sound, representing different strands of American popular music, from just four players onstage (including the devastating trumpeter Alphonso Horne) and five offstage. Sometimes the original songs are barely recognizable in their new clothing; at other times they have the uncanny familiarity of a post-facelift face that makes you want to say: You look different.
Satisfying as that then-and-now duality is in theory, it adds to a rather large list of confusing and incomplete choices overall. What does it mean that Vera almost outdoes the Black characters in the use of scat singing and melismatic riffs? (Stanley is pushing way too hard.) Why does the relationship between Vera and Joey provoke racist threats while Lucille’s with a white gangster (Jeb Brown) provokes nothing but laughs? (Devine is a welcome source of humor and good spirits in the otherwise nearly humorless production.) Why is Linda barely integrated into the action, performing most of her songs (rendered modestly by Jackson) in the no-context of a recording booth?
And though the roughness of the sound (many lyrics were unintelligible as of Wednesday night) and the longueurs of the staging (by Tony Goldwyn and, again, Glover) can be written off to the usual City Center problem of under-rehearsal, a show with such evidently large ambitions — Emilio Sosa’s glamorous early-1940s costumes, a monumental under-the-el set by Derek McLane, lit moodily by Jon Goldman — needs to be more than intriguing. It needs to be coherent.
You can certainly count on coherence from the songs themselves, no matter how randomly they sometimes seem to have been placed in one Rodgers and Hart show instead of another. Even completely shorn of plot relevance, they are evergreen for a reason. Though this “Pal Joey” rightfully questions the appropriation of Black voices in American popular song — referring to the King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman, and the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, Joey says, “Awful lot of Kings out there playing our music” — it’s strange to build that argument on the back of these standards. If they’re the problem, why celebrate them, and make them sound so good in the process?
Through Nov. 5 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.