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'Joey' is bewitching, bothersome

STONEHAM -- One of the more famous collaborations of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, ''Pal Joey" has had a troubled history. It was considered too scandalous when it opened in 1940, and it wasn't produced successfully until 1952.

More than 50 years later, the main problem is the opposite of what it used to be. The musical's tone seems too mild for the scheming cads and cadettes who bed, bamboozle, and blackmail one another in it over the course of 2 1/2 hours. The Stoneham Theatre production has no cures for John O'Hara's book, which he based on his New Yorker short stories, and has a few problems of its own.

Nevertheless, there's also much to like about it. Leigh Barrett is sensational as Vera Simpson, the married woman who takes Joey Evans, an ambitious nightclub singer, under her wing (so to speak). The most famous song here, rightly so, is ''Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Hart's soulful and sexy lyrics could go head to head with the best of Cole Porter (''Couldn't sleep/ and wouldn't sleep/ until I could sleep where I shouldn't sleep"), and Barrett's slow, dreamy performance of the song could go head to head with any other Vera's.

The rest of the women also come up aces, particularly Kerry Dowling, who makes the difficult ''Zip" number look easy (she references everyone from Schopenhauer to Tyrone Power while taking off some of her clothes); Ceit McCaleb as Gladys Bumps, the leader of the energetic nightclub dancers; and choreographer Michelle Petrucci, who gives Gladys all the right bumps and the ballet segment some real class. (Petrucci is also one of the dancers.)

The men are more of a mixed bag. The young Brad Bass is a superb dancer in the title role, a part originated by Gene Kelly. But while his singing is also quite good, he's unconvincing as a callow careerist who's supposed to ooze sexual energy. Bass looks as if he's never done anything naughtier than show up for choir practice a few minutes late.

Meanwhile, as the sleazebag agent Ludlow Lowell, Scott Marshall offers fine comedic acting, but to call his singing suspect would be kind. Sheldon Ross's trumpet playing sometimes leads the otherwise cohesive four-piece band astray.

Still, it's O'Hara's book that causes the most problems. The plot often jumps from Point A to Point C without passing B, and where Hart's lyrics glide across the decades, O'Hara's dialogue has aged badly. O'Hara's story falls completely apart in the second act, when a time-consuming blackmailing scheme derails the plot.

Codirectors Weylin Symes and Caitlin Lowans keep things moving, but they might have provided some oil for O'Hara's creakiness and helped Bass dirty up his act a bit.

Fortunately, there are Hart's marvelous lyrics and Rodgers's jazzy melodies. The Stoneham acoustics aren't wonderful, but there's enough excellence in the singing to compensate. And when the cast launches into ''I Could Write a Book," ''Take Him," and most of all, ''Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," ''Pal Joey" becomes a friend you can count on.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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