Review: PAL JOEY at Altarena Playhouse

Now through April 28th

By: Mar. 30, 2024
Review: PAL JOEY at Altarena Playhouse
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Pulled from a forgotten corner of Golden Age theater, PAL JOEY gets a new life at Altarena Playhouse. The glam and sparkle of nightclub life are on full display with daring dancers and swooning singers. With a dream ballet and dreamy costumes, the show evokes the best from the past while also exposing its shortcomings and pitfalls.

PAL JOEY revolves around the maneuvers and machinations of Joey Evans, a nightclub emcee and singer that has just arrived in town looking for work. He is able to sweet talk his way into a job and immediately begins to start schmooze with the chorus girls. He meets a young woman, Linda English, who is charmed by the puppies for sale in a shop window. Joey crafts a past and story to win her over and captures her heart. Meanwhile back at the club, one of the dance girls, Gladys Bumps, has his number and knows not to believe a word he says. Joey is delighted to see Linda at the club and begins to pour it on thick, only to be called away to give face time to a very important guest, Vera Simpson. This high class socialite, allured not by his charm but by his lack of pandering to her status, takes a vested interest in his future and sets him up by purchasing the club for him. Linda is left with whiplash from the sudden removal of his attention. Joey starts to make changes as his club and along the way makes more enemies. Soon a plot to give him his comeuppance is hatched by an unlikely group. Like a game of chess, every move is met with a check, and you’re unsure who will come out on top.

From his first note to his lip-licking crooked grin, Nico Jaochico lets you know that Joey Evans is trouble. While his position as an anti-hero is abundantly clear, I would have liked to see more genuine charm that would have made his escapades more believable. Jarusha Ariel as Gladys gives us a straightforward tough girl that is not easily fooled but lacks the power to control the situation on her own. From her interactions with the other chorus girls to her dealings with Joey, we never doubt who she is. Jetta Grace Martin as Cookie is a delight in the chorus, having not only some of the best lines but also the best delivery leaving you wishing her character had a more central part to the story. Val, played by Shelly McDowell, is another bright spot providing the big-eyed, hard-working chorus girl with a heart and more smarts than you first think. Her performance of Zip perfectly encapsulated the excitement and nerves of a chorus girl getting her first shot at a solo number. Max Thorne as the tenor Victor makes a big impact with this small part. He leans into the cheesiness of the number and lets it soar. Dan Kolodny as Ludlow Lowell gives us another complex character that attempts to use two wrongs to make a right. His power of persuasion lies in his eyes which are always full of energy and pulling you into his plot. Sarah Elizabeth William’s Linda English is genuine, earnest, and anything but the simple girl you first meet. Maria Mikheyenko as Vera Simpson gives a nuanced portrayal of a compromised character with uncompromising strength. While her philandering and use of Joey as a boy toy should make her character distasteful, you can’t help root for her success. Mikheyenko wins the audience over quickly and keeps them on her side for the duration. From her ad lib adjustment of an uncooperative photo prop to her lyrical melodies, she owns the stage every minute that she inhabits it.

Altarena Playhouse pulls out all the stops in its production of Pal Joey. The women’s costumes by Ava Byrd are a visual feast, and when paired with the wig design of Jeremy Letheule, present a glorious window into the past. However some of Joey’s costumes left me wondering why they were so ill-fitting making him appear like a boy at dress-up with coats and pants that were too long. Lighting Designer Mark Decker set the mood and enhanced the dance numbers throughout the show. Choreographer Rachelle King evoked the past with the chorus girl numbers and brought a few surprises with delightful tap and fan numbers, always managing to keep it interesting and most importantly very clean allowing the dancers to perform with confidence and shine. Director Laura Morgan makes good use of the different areas and levels of the stage and makes sure all areas are included. However, as is often the struggle with small spaces, the transitions were often clunky and long. The show itself has the cadence of the older era and needs quick pacing to keep a modern audience’s attention. This is where the show struggled the most, running almost twenty minutes past the advertised time as some scenes had too much air in them and the transitions killed momentum.

The cast, the costumes, and individual performances give ample reasons to attend the show. However the pacing, run time, and a story that never feels as high stakes as it should remind us why this show is so rarely produced in modern theater. If you’re itching for a bit of nostalgia for the era of nightclub entertainment, there will be plenty to entertain you. If you are looking for something fresh or fast, this may not be the show for you. However, if you believe in local theater and want to support their efforts and their ability to take risks, your presence is vital. PAL JOEY runs now through April 28th at the Altarena Playhouse in Alameda.

Photo Credit: Grizzly De Haro