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A CurtainUp Review
Smokey Joe's Café
Leiber & Stoller
By Elyse Sommer
Though Smokey Joe's Café was built around a rich catalogue of hits from the '50s and 60s by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, it wasn't a hit with New York critics, most of whom dismissed it as a cabaret show with musical theater pretensions. But the many fans of this hit-after-hit making team's rock and roll songs (including several Elvis blockbusters), ballads and just plain fun tunes said otherwise. They kept seats at the Virginia Theater (now renamed in honor of the late August Wilson) filled for . 2,036 performances, which made it the longest musical revue run in Broadway history. What's more, it's been produced around the world ever since.
Of course, there's no shortage of other recording industry hit makers to inspire more of this jukesical treatment and also become big winner — for example, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, Million Dollar Quartet, Beautiful. To justify their stage worthiness, all have added story on which to hang the musical numbers— either biographical as in Jersey Boys , Beautiful, On Your Feet; or fictional as in Mamma Mia or the about to open officially Head Over Heels, that mixes the music of the '80s rock band the Go-Gos with a 16th Century, faux Shakespearean tale.
What's new about the Smokey Joe's Café now at the Shubert Organization's handsome Stage 42 is not a major update such as an added book element. What's new is the clever way it's been staged. There's nothing cabaret-like about Joshua Bergasse's pacey direction and sizzly choreography, Sonny Paladino's arrangement of the music, or Beowulf Boritt's meticulously detailed two-tier 50s style cafe-bar set with its big bar, curved metal staircases and slide-out platform at the side for the small band.
Boritt's scenery is further enhanced by a lot of neon lights that lighting designer Jeff Croiter brings into full play during some numbers. Alejo Vieti's costumes add to all these assets.
The songs are still presented without a conventional libretto but in that café environment the song-upon-song transitions now seem more of a piece — each number feels a bit like an episode in TV's long-running Friends, with each number part of the romantic adventures (and misadventures), friendships, yearnings, and comedic interactions of a group of young people at their favorite hangout. Given the mood defining lyrics and this cast's powerhouse singing and dancing and ability to reveal emotions, dialogue is unnecessary.
I didn't see the original production but a friend who did told me that while the original was terrifically enjoyable, it was indeed a "more nightclubby" entertainment. Fortunately, Leiber and Stoller's songs fit this more connected and emotionally potent presentation very well. After all they partnered as music producers as well as song writers and in that capacity pioneered surrounding black musicians with elaborate production values.
At any rate, Leiber/Stoller's rock and roll tunes, bluesy ballads and novelty sketches hold up well enough to make it unnecessary for this revival to rely strictly on the trip-down-memory-lane appeal. The show's overall contemporary look, feel and timing (90 minutes, no intermission) is likely to have this more than half a century old songbook win a whole new fan base. Of course it helps that the cast's five men and four women are well-credentialed young Broadway and Off-Broadway veterans who do justice to the music, the inventive staging and athletic choreography.
Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Jelani Remy align into authentic counterparts of iconic rock and roll quartets and doo-wop groups harmonizing on street corners and accompanying themselves with home-made instruments like washboards. They also shine in memorable duets and solos.
Remy's amazingly acrobatic delivery of Presley's famous "Jailhouse Rock" is a particular show stopper. Dwayne Cooper impresses with his incredibly flexible deep baritone voice, and Kyle Taylor Parker has some stand-out comic moments as in"Love Potion #9." Others too demonstrate their range of talents. John Edwards' segues deftly between the comic "Poison Ivy" and the deeper "Stand By Me," which was recently part of the British royal wedding. Max Sangerman, the fifth member of the male cast, does double duty as a solid soul singer and virtuoso guitar player.
The four women contribute greatly to the narrative feel and fine singing. They too regroup often and fluidly.
Emma Degerstedt who most recently played a novitiate nun defending her virtue in Desperate Measure now does a drop-dead shimmy. Alysha Umphress, who played Hildy in the Bergasse choreographed Broadway revival of On the Town , stops the show with her poignant "I Keep Forgetting." Dionne D. Figgins' ballerina background is evident in her graceful and sexy dancing. Though her delivery of lyrics is at times not as clear as it could be, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz has her show-stopping moment when with the men she turns "Hound Dog" into a #MeToo-like empowerment ballad.
To sum up, at a time when we're barraged with shocking tweets and actions from the White House, it's a relief when, at least for a little while, all that's coming your way are these ear and eye pleasing tunes made fresh and new again. If I have any complaints, it's that 40 songs in just 90 minutes is too much of a good thing. This peppy revival would be even better with about five less songs — but don't ask me which ones I'd cut.
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Smokey Joe's Café
co-conceived by Stephen Helper and Jack Viertel
Directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Cast: Dwayne Cooper, Emma Degerstedt, John Edwards, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani Remy, Max Sangerman, and Alysha Umphress.
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt
Costume design by Alejo Vietti
Lighting design by Jeff Croiter
Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald
Original vocal arrangements by Chapman Roberts
Orchestrations by Steve Margoshes and Sonny Paladino
Music Supervision and new arrangements by Mr. Paladino.
Wig design, Charles G. LaPointe
Stage Manager: Pamela Edington
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission
Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street www.smokeyjoescafemusical.com
From 7/06/18; opening 7/22/18. The show was co-conceived by Stephen Helper and Jack Viertel. Cast:Dwayne Cooper, Emma Degerstedt, John Edwards, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani Remy, Max Sangerman, and Alysha Umphress. This powerhouse ensemble brings new life to more than 30 classic songs. Running Time: 80 minutes.
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