Joey Evans is nobody’s pal. An arrogant pathological liar who relies on his looks and charisma to glide through life, Joey is one of musical theater’s first antiheroes. His unsympathetic portrayal was revolutionary in 1940, setting the stage for characters like Hair’s Berger, Follies’s Ben Stone and Grease’s Danny Zuko—all roles Adrian Aguilar has performed in the last two years.
Aguilar steps into the dance shoes of musical theater’s proto-scumbag with ease in Porchlight’s vivacious revival, balancing enthusiastic bravado with an underlying sense that something is very broken at the core of Joey’s character. He’s not remotely likable, but he’s captivating in that walking train-wreck kind of way. Joey is unwavering in his swagger yet completely delusional regarding the emptiness of his personal life. His interpretation of “I’m Talking to My Pal” in front of a mirror is a fight to convince himself he’s not his own worst enemy, and with talent like Aguilar’s, it’s easy for Joey to be fooled by his reflection.
Joey meets his match in Susie McMonagle’s Vera Simpson, a wealthy, married Chicago socialite who becomes his sugar mama. McMonagle delivers a stirring rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” that reveals a woman desperate for excitement. She does admirable work exploring the subtext of the moment; as bewitched as Vera is now, she fears the inevitable disintegration of that enchantment. And, oh, does it fall apart.
Pal Joey may be important to musical-theater history, but it doesn't hold up well. John O’Hara’s book develops a flimsy love triangle between Joey, Vera and his neighbor Linda (Laura Savage serving concentrated ingenue), yet fails to provide solid reasons why any of these characters would actually want to be together. In Act II, the character drama is pushed to the background to make way for a plodding blackmail scheme, slowing the momentum of the production and weakening the integrity of the relationships. The second half of the show is largely saved by the work of the gifted female ensemble, including a show-stopping striptease from Callie Johnson. The story may not be the most satisfying, but Porchlight has assembled a cast that milks it for all its entertainment value.