REVIEW: “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” rocks your soul!
There was once a time when music from the theatre topped the charts and filled the airwaves. One theory posits that the advent of rock and roll changed all that. Whether you buy it or not, there’s no denying that a cycle completed itself with the hit premiere of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” on Broadway in 1995.
A rock and roll/R&B musical revue featuring 39 top-shelf songs from the pop cannon of legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (think: “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Poison Ivy”, “Stand By Me”, “Love Potion #9”, et. al.), “Smokey Joes Cafe” went on to play five years and over 2,000 performances, becoming the longest running musical revue in Broadway history and picking up a Grammy for best musical theatre album in 1997.
For theatregoers looking for a jolt of high energy, head-shaking, toe-tapping fun, a rocking and soulful new revival of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” didn’t open so much as explode tonight at Stage 42 Off-Broadway, following an out-of-town engagement at Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. It’s hard to resist this hyperkinetic 90 minutes of pure, joyful, electric entertainment. I suggest you submit to its feel-good charm.
Now performed as a one-act, with a revised song order and new performer tracks, “Smokey Joes Cafe” remains as fresh and hot as ever—the secret sauce, of course, being the alchemy created by the combination of some of the greatest pop and rock songs ever written brought to life fast and furiously by an abundantly talented troupe of performers.
Director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse (“On the Town”) crafts a sleek, soulful, and spirited rock-and-roll roller coaster musical celebration that positively pulsates and jives, wow-ing when it should and bowing to the rhythms and moods that make each song special, and each moment vital. There’s not a wrong note, nor a missed opportunity for humor or pizzazz, from start to finish.
I am hard pressed to think of another ensemble as universally talented as the one assembled here: five guys (Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani Remy, Max Sangerman) and four gals (Emma Degerstedt, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, and Alysha Umphress). Each is afforded a moment, or several, to shine, the genius of the concept being its malleability in showcasing the talents each performer brings to the fore.
Among many highlights are Ms. Umphress’ poignant rendition of “Pearl’s A Singer” and smoking version of “Trouble”; the irresistible four piece harmonies and synchronized movements of Messrs. Cooper, Edward, Parker, and Remy; and Ms. Figgins’ lithesome movement (she hails from the Dance Theatre of Harlem).
“Smokey Joes Cafe” smartly doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is: a musical revue. There’s no plot and no dialogue. This show is all about the joy of its music, each song its own simple little play, and Mr. Bergasse and his company bring fresh perspective to material that is, in some cases, nearly seven decades old.
While the lyrics often embody the language of a bygone era, and the hit parade procession of love songs is decidedly heteronormative, their interpretation is nonetheless smoothly grounded in the present. Indeed, despite the age of the music, “Smokey Joes Cafe” is no period piece—it belongs both to no time and to present and decades past.
The cast is decked in an edgy and colorful collage of modern dress (costumes by Alejo Vietti), and the movement features a mélange of styles tracking the development of popular dance from the 1950s to the present, all faithfully (and tightly) performed in near non-stop motion.
Set designer Beowulf Boritt has constructed a gorgeously detailed, two story exposed brick bar and café, which provides a cohesive home base for the action and is wonderfully lit by Jeff Croiter, with the aid of some neon signs. The back wall of the cafe is lined with vintage radios—a sweet nod to history and bridge to the present: a national moment of great discord and tension. 90 minutes at “Smokey Joes Cafe” is a great way to escape.
Bottom Line: “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, a musical revue featuring 39 songs from the pop cannon of legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, is a hyperkinetic 90 minutes of pure, joyful, electric entertainment; anyone looking for a jolt of high energy, head-shaking, toe-tapping fun should check out this rocking and soulful new revival at Stage 42 Off-Broadway.