When you're sitting watching a new musical, it's easy to focus on a book or a score and underestimate the perennial dependency of Broadway tuners on lyrics. And if you're ever looking for lyrical excellence, the songs of Lorenz Hart (an early songwriting partner with composer Richard Rodgers), lest we forget, are a darn good place to start.
You only had to be sitting in Stage 733 on Monday night, watching the terrific Susie McMonagle warble the ballad — at once romantic and witty — titled "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" in those intimate surroundings. McMonagle is the anchor of director Michael Weber's production of "Pal Joey" for Porchlight Music Theatre, an off-Loop company that bills itself as producing Chicago-style musicals. Not surprisingly, Porchlight found itself drawn to one of the very few classic Broadway musicals actually set among the grind joints and nighteries of this town, back when poor Chicago had showgirls to enliven the Midwestern drudgery.
The "Bewitched" ballad is just one of the musical gems in this 1940 show (composed by Rogers). McMonagle plays one of those wealthy Chicago women of a certain age. In this strikingly racy affair for its era, her Vera Simpson falls in love with the titular Joey Evans, a handsome if somewhat callow singer-dancer-lover, here played by the young, vocally adroit and nicely eroticized Adrian Aguilar. The ballad is pretty much an exploration of the state of lust — and if you think about it, it nails that state pretty well. And McMonagle offers up a take at once blousy, bluesy and blistering. "I'll sing to him," she sang Monday night, "each spring to him, and worship the trousers that cling to him." Pity those poor suckers who have to stay home, thought I at the moment.
Actually, it's not the only glimpse of excellence in a production (musical direction by Doug Peck) that comes out roaring out of the gate, not least because Weber clearly decided that the book needed to be moved along. Good choice, since it creaks. Not only does Weber, who clearly understands and loves this show, inject some Chicago-style grit into the early going, he overlaps the various transitions very deftly, making fine use of William Boles' economical but creative unit set.
The other killer moment comes courtesy of a budding comedic starlet, fresh out of school, named Callie Johnson, whose one big scene spoofing Chicago journalists (and I think there might have been a specific model in mind) is a hilarious piece of business that leads into the knockout song "Zip." There, those lyrics take over. Hart works in Sally Rand, Mickey Mouse, Tyrone Power, Schopenhauer and Saroyan, and he still finds time for "I don't like a deep contralto or a man whose voice is alto." Johnson is pitch-perfect. Hilariously so.
Alas, Weber does not have a solution for much of Act 2, where the inevitable gangster plot takes over, the initially swift pacing dissipates (weirdly) and you start to see that Weber's bench of talent is not sufficiently deep to really carry off every inch of the show, musically and comedically. But the stars shine here, and the individual pleasures abide.
When: Through May 26
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $39 at 773-327-5252 or stage773.com