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Rarely staged ‘Pal Joey’ a zippy affair at Porchlight

Porchlight Music Theatre's 'Pal Joey'  stars Adrian Aguilar as Joey Susie McMonagle as Vera. | Phoby BrandDahlquist

Porchlight Music Theatre's "Pal Joey" stars Adrian Aguilar as Joey and Susie McMonagle as Vera. | Photo by Brandon Dahlquist

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When: Through May 26

Where: May 26 Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont

Tickets: $39

Info: (773) 327-5252; www.PorchlightMusic

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: May 28, 2013 7:51PM

For much of “Pal Joey,” the edgy, funny, infrequently revived Rodgers and Hart musical now in a zesty Porchlight Music Theatre production, two women — Vera Simpson (Susie McMonagle), a winningly jaded middle-aged socialite, and Linda English (lovely Laura Savage), a pretty, smarter-than-she-seems young shop girl — vie for the attention of Joey Evans (Adrian Aguilar), a handsome, frustrated, second-rate nightclub performer whose attempts at self invention invariably backfire. But the joke is that these two women, who start out singing together in “What Is a Man?,” again join forces late in the second act for a song titled “Take Him.” As they’ve come to realize, Joey might just be a whole lot more trouble than he’s worth.

A bigger joke comes by way of another song, “Zip,” the production’s surprise showstopper. When Joey shows up for a promotional interview for the reinvented South Side Chicago nightclub where he is headliner, he comes face-to-face with the frumpy journalist Melba Snyder. But taking a cue from Gypsy Rose Lee, her favorite celebrity subject, Melba (in a knockout transformation by Callie Johnson, a terrific dancer and comedian, as well as quite a beauty), explains what it really takes to keep a man distracted.

This might sound like familiar territory, but it’s worth recalling that “Pal Joey” arrived on Broadway in 1940, and its book, by New Yorker magazine writer John O’Hara, put a modern anti-hero into the spotlight for the first time. In the Porchlight production, directed by Michael Weber, Aguilar — a wonderfully natural dancer — captures certain aspects of the always nervous, short-tempered, opportunistic Joey. But there is something so essentially decent about this actor that he can’t quite put the necessary cutting edge on his character.

The worldy, knowing McMonagle nails “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” And there is playful work from Matt Orlando (as the gangster Ludlow Lowell), the sparkling Sharriese Hamilton as go-getter club singer Gladys Bumps, and Jim Heatherly as a classic vaudevillian.

But it is that brilliant choreographer Brenda Didier, and her purposefully hilarious, second-rate, attitude-aplenty chorus girls who easily steal the show here — most memorably dancing up a storm in “The Flower Garden of My Heart,” complete with Bill Morey’s laugh-generating costumes.

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