Kennedy Center cancels centerpiece ‘Pal Joey’

The Kennedy Center has had to scrap the centerpiece theater event of its 2011-12 season — a major, reworked revival of the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical “Pal Joey” — after its director, Christopher Ashley, abruptly pulled out of the production.

Into the show’s June 8 to July 1 slot will go “First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb,” a revue directed by Eric Schaeffer that had its world premiere at Schaeffer’s Signature Theatre in September 2009. The prolific Schaeffer staged the center’s well-received “Follies,” which this month ends a Broadway run and moves to Los Angeles in the spring.

“Pal Joey,” with a new book by Terrence McNally, was to have been the sole theatrical offering this season originating at the Kennedy Center, much in the way that “Follies” was produced there last season. (The other musicals, such as current tenant “Billy Elliot the Musical,” are tours.) That plan fell apart Thursday, when, according to Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser, the center was informed that Ashley, artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, would no longer be available.

In the eternal game of musical chairs that goes on in the theater, Ashley has signed on to “Leap of Faith,” the new musical suddenly on Broadway’s agenda, with the apparent faltering of the Harry Connick Jr. revival of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”

“We got a call yesterday morning at 10 that we lost a director,” Kaiser said Friday. “This wasn’t just a revival, it was with a book newly interpolated and it was a collaboration with Chris. There was no way to resurrect it.”

The company, Kaiser said, had feelers out for casting, but nothing was firm. A workshop for “Pal Joey” had been held in New York, he added, with four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald and Colin Donnell, currently appearing on Broadway in “Anything Goes.”

The replacement production, a survey of about three dozen songs by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, creators of, among others, “Chicago” and “Cabaret,” was arranged in record time. “At 10:30, I’m on the phone with Eric and by 1 o’clock we’re meeting,” Kaiser said of Thursday’s events. Longtime Schaeffer collaborator Karma Camp will reprise her choreographic duties, but casting is unresolved. The original production featured Heidi Blickenstaff, James Clow, Eleasha Gamble, Norm Lewis, Julia Murney and Matthew Scott.

Tickets for the general public to “Pal Joey” had not gone on sale, so only Kennedy Center subscribers holding tickets are directly affected. Kaiser said they will be offered seats in the Eisenhower Theater for “First, You Dream” — which go on sale March 5 — or to another Kennedy Center offering.

Rescheduling “Pal Joey” seems unlikely. Kaiser said that the center is committed to other projects for the next two years.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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