Also see Scott's review of Once
Before the jukebox musical's style of shoehorning songs into a narrative became popular during the last decade or so, the more prevalent form of showcasing existing songs on Broadway was the musical revue. Smokey Joe's Café was one of the more successful examples of this genre, playing nearly five years in New York. The 20th anniversary tour edition of the show is currently playing at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, and boasts some strong performances and well-known songs in a suitably packaged production.
Smokey Joe's Café features 39 songs written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Their songs span most of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. The show contains some little known tunes, but also pop and rock standards such as "Fools Fall In Love," "On Broadway," "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Hound Dog," "I'm A Woman," "There Goes My Baby," "Jailhouse Rock," "Spanish Harlem," and "Stand By Me." The score is a wide mix of novelty songs, anthems, ballads, and torch songs covering the styles of pop, rock and roll, and R&B songs from the era. With no overall theme, dialogue, or sustained characters, Smokey Joe's Café is simply about the music. Your connection to and familiarity with the songs may greatly reflect your overall reaction to this show, which relies heavily on nostalgia as a selling point.
This production is directed and choreographed by Chet Walker. The transitions are fluid and a quick pace is maintained. However, there are times, especially at the beginning and end of the show, where it seems a bit like a show found at an amusement park rather than on Broadway. The material is partly to blame for that, however. There are some songs, like "Don Juan" and "Shoppin' For Clothes," where a fuller story is told and Mr. Walker's work as a director is better showcased. The dances are fun and period appropriate. Many of the movements of the all-male groups from that era are replicated gleefully, and the choreography is especially vivid in numbers such as "Teach Me How to Shimmy," "On Broadway," and "Jailhouse Rock." Todd Olson leads a rockin' on-stage six-piece band.
Smokey Joe's Café is traditionally a nine-performer show, but occasionally has featured special celebrity artists as well on Broadway, and this is the case for this tour, with the appearance of the current incarnation of The Coasters, who bring some period authenticity and flair to the show. The original group has a long history with Leiber and Stoller, so their inclusion is appropriate here. Of the nine primary singers, special kudos go to Keely Beirne and Erin McGrath, both of whom are gifted vocalists, excellent dancers, and really know how to sell a song across the footlights. The male quartet of Nik Alexander, Malcolm Armwood, Robert Fowler, and Caliaf St. Aubyn does wonderfully with many of the boy group numbers and with their individual turns as well, and Vaden Thurgood is a top-notch dancer. Kathleen McCann and Kat Liz Kramer were on as understudies at the performance reviewed. Though they are both talented, neither was an ideal fit for the material vocally.
The functional scenic design by Steve Paladie features segmented squares which light up in various colors and can split to form a doorway and a bar/table. It seems a bit clumsy at times, mostly when manually moved, but serves the piece sufficiently. The lighting by Brian Loesch has some fine moments, but both the lighting and the sets seem too big for the small stage space at the Victoria. Views of the band were blocked due to the crowded spacing and many of the lighting effects missed their intended marks due to the lack of stage depth. The costumes by Martin T. Lopez are beautiful and balance the line between period and modern effectively. The shiny, sparkly metallic look of the act one costumes is especially appealing.
Smokey Joe's Café is a throwback show featuring many well-known period songs that will appeal to the nostalgic emotions of baby boomers everywhere. The current tour features a solid cast and some celebrity appeal with The Coasters, and continues at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton through November 23, 2014. Visit www.victoriatheatre.com or call (937) 228-3630 for more information.