Extraordinary ‘Pal Joey’ in 42nd Street Moon spotlight

Courtesy PhotoTaking the lead: Deborah Del Mastro and Johnny Orenberg are excellent in 42nd Street Moon’s production of the 1940 musical “Pal Joey.”

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Pal Joey” is an unusual 1940 musical with an antihero who changes not a whit and a quiet, inconclusive ending featuring protagonist Joey alone onstage, quite lost.

Unlike many shows presented by San Francisco’s 42nd Street Moon — whose mission is to revive forgotten Broadway productions — “Pal Joey” has a recognizable title and well-known song, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”

Artistic director Greg MacKellan says the troupe is presenting  “Pal Joey” for several reasons: It isn’t produced in its original version very often and, he adds, “Like all small theater companies, we are struggling. We need people to come see the shows. That means we need to do two to three shows a season that have songs people know, that have titles that may be familiar to them, so that we can also do shows like ‘Carmelina,’ which will be genuine discoveries for the audience.”

Based on a book by John O’Hara, “Pal Joey” is about a young hustler and Lothario who meets his match in a rich, older woman who takes him under her possessive wings.

In the title role, Johnny Orenberg gives an excellent, nuanced performance in the difficult part of a young, crude punk. His singing and dancing are strong, too.  

He’s matched by Deborah Del Mastro as the rich and powerful Vera Simpson, who looks like she easily could step out of a Fifth Avenue mansion. On opening night, she stopped the show with her rendition of “Bewitched.”

Music director Dave Dobrusky pulls voices of varying qualities together in the fine ensemble and also provides piano accompaniment.

Director-choreographer Zack Thomas Wilde nicely stages the action and comedy, but, working with dancers who range from good to adequate, settles for simple, repetitive movements. They hit some high points, but the choreography is rather flat. Ashley Rae Little as Gladys Bumps and Michelle Cabinian as Claire the Kid are best.

Becky Saunders as a world-weary reporter stands out in the song “Zip,” while Ryan Drummond as fast-talking Ludlow Lowell is impressively venomous.

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