By Thom Geier
Updated December 18, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s hard to follow in the footsteps of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. But that’s the unenviable task assigned to Matthew Risch, the understudy elevated to carry Roundabout’s Pal Joey after the sudden exit of Jersey Boys veteran Christian Hoff. And though Risch works up an impressive flop sweat — literally mopping up the perspiration from his face with an ill-disguised cloth during one early scene — his efforts still have the whiff of flop about them.

The difficulty comes in the role: Joey Evans is a charismatic cad, an antihero who uses and abuses the people in his life — the women in particular — but who’s charming enough to keep them coming back for more. There aren’t many actors who carry off that challenge convincingly (Kelly originated the role on stage, and Sinatra starred in the 1957 movie version). Unfortunately, Risch doesn’t really come close. Paging Hugh Jackman!

Risch is never less than professional, but his costars must struggle to compensate for his shortcomings in this tricky story: Jenny Fellner, as the bumpkin-in-the-big-city ingenue, fails to convince us why she’d hang around for a nogoodnik like Joey; Stockard Channing, as the cougar and sugar mama who falls for Joey and finances his nightclub, is thin of voice but touchingly acts her way through classic songs like ”Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered;” and Martha Plimpton, as an aging showgirl punished for knowing too much about Joey’s shady past, is a surprisingly strong singer who comfortably sells her second-act charmer, ”Zip.” C+

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