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Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Pal Joey is playing at Studio 54 on Broadway.




November 21, 2008


A Jersey Boy’s Moment as Broadway’s New Pal



It’s not every day that an actor is tapped to play a role immortalized by Gene Kelly onstage and Frank Sinatra on screen. It is not every day, either, that producers choose to revisit that role, Joey Evans in “Pal Joey,” given that it has a title character who uses and exploits women and has a legendarily uneven book that goes with the famous Rodgers and Hart score.


Given how risk-averse Broadway is, such a role might seem reserved for a bankable, household-name star who guarantees the extraordinary charisma that the rakish, antihero Joey must project – a Harry Connick Jr., say, or a Hugh Jackman, both rumored as potential Joeys in recent years.


So the weight of history and high expectations now sits on the shoulders of one Christian Hoff. He is not a household name; he is not a bankable star. What he is – besides the lead in Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of “Pal Joey,” now in previews at Studio 54 – is a Broadway classic himself: a determined, confident actor who found midcareer fame (and a featured-performance Tony) as Tommy DeVito in “Jersey Boys” and has his first shot at a major leading role.


For Mr. Hoff the role is one he said he was born to play after years as guys “you would not want your daughter to date.”

“The success I’m having right now is the result of 32 years of hard work and perseverance and my share of struggle to get to this point to go to the next step and lead one of our of great American musicals,” Mr. Hoff said in an interview on Monday in the quiet New Jersey suburb of Milburn, where he lives with his wife, Melissa, and their young daughter.


“And the most challenging part of this is realizing that everything I need to do to succeed in this role is there,” he said. “I just need to exercise it. Everything I am, I’ve got to pull out: my dark side, humor, charm, my song-and-dance man, my go-getter, my cutthroat Machiavellian side. But it’s on me to make it happen.”


Mr. Hoff said he was not intimidated by the expectations for the show, which is having its first Broadway revival in more than 30 years, or by comparisons to Kelly or Sinatra, who performed in a film version that was significantly different from the stage musical. During an hour and a half of conversation he exuded a mix of certainty and humility about his success, speaking evenly and forcefully. At one point during the interview, his lawyer called to talk about Mr. Huff’s custody battle with his first wife over his two other children; he took note of the lawyer’s number and continued talking, not thrown off a smidge by his offstage family drama.


“Rather than follow in the footsteps of the great icons who have played the role of Joey Evans – Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Bob Fosse – as an actor I’m enjoying filling the shoes of Joey Evans as a character and taking it to that level,” Mr. Hoff, 40, said.


“Having that history gives me a real sense of responsibility,” he added. “But I don’t feel the weight of history. Some would, but there’s so much more to this story and its impact on the audience. I’m relishing in that and not any expectation or preconception. We are defining what this show is, not redefining.”


Based on several New Yorker short stories by John O’Hara about a rakish, scheming song-and-dance man, the musical is known far better for its songs – gold-plate standards like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “I Could Write a Book” and “Zip” – than for ever being seen by audiences. Mr. Hoff himself was only vaguely familiar with its story and history when he was approached about the part, amid the runaway commercial success of “Jersey Boys.”


“I had no idea what it was about, no idea of all of the songs that were in it, no idea of who was in it, and no idea what an underdog it was,” Mr. Hoff said.


He said he instantly connected with Joey, in no small part because he was the sort of lovably roguish character that Mr. Hoff has long played, like Tommy DeVito, the real-life Four Seasons singer who struggled with gambling debts and inner demons. On television he has appeared on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and as a roguish district attorney on “Ugly Betty.” For decades he has played supporting characters who have dark or troubled sides, though he also became known for playing a lighter role, as the voice of the cartoon character Richie Rich.


As he prepared to play Joey, Mr. Hoff grew excited that he could define a role for audiences who might be drawn to a flawed central character more than they were in Kelly’s day, for the premiere in 1940. Reviews then were mixed to negative.


“People are willing to accept a musical about an ambitious antihero and those who enable him to succeed – and who ultimately pull the rug from under him,” Mr. Hoff said.


“People are ready to see and identify with a character who is less than perfect,” he continued. “We all have something in common with Joey Evans. We all want to please people, we all fancy ourselves as altruistic, and yet it is inevitable that we are self-serving ultimately. The only question is, where along the line do you learn the difference between ambition and abuse of power?”


The artistic director of Roundabout, Todd Haimes, began mulling a revival of “Pal Joey” 11 years ago, after reading a new book for the musical by the playwright Richard Greenberg (“Take Me Out,” “Three Days of Rain”). In an interview this week Mr. Haimes said he thought the Greenberg adaptation transformed the original “flawed book” by enriching the dialogue and sharpening the characters of not only Joey but the women in his life, like the damaged society wife Vera Simpson (Stockard Channing) and the wronged chanteuse Gladys Bumps (Martha Plimpton). In other words, there would be a stronger story that might match the well-known songs.


“When it was written in 1938, and I’m speculating here, you couldn’t go to as dark a place as you can go now,” Mr. Haimes said. “It’s certainly not something that’s done in high schools.” But the rights to the show remained in the hands of commercial producers for a long nine years. There were fits and starts over that time: a 1998 reading with Mr. Connick, talk of a production directed by Robert Altman. Eventually Roundabout acquired the rights, and Mr. Haimes enlisted one of his favorite directors, Joe Mantello, who decided early that he wanted Mr. Hoff – based largely on his work in “Jersey Boys”- and Ms. Channing.


To read the entire story, clike here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/21/theater/21hoff.html?_r=1&ref=theater 

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