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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Hearty, Homegrown Smokey Joe's Café at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Also see David's review of Our Town

Smokey Joe's Cafe
Sarah Rudinoff, Charlie Parker, Lisa Estridge
A wealth of Seattle-based talent comes damn near raising the roof at the 5th Avenue Theatre in the company's sassy staging of the mega-long run Broadway revue Smokey Joe's Café - The Songs of Leiber and Stoller. Directed with vigor by Bill Berry and choreographed with style and pizzazz by Jane Lanier, this is a more intimate, emotional version of the Leiber and Stoller songbook revue than the version that played The Paramount a few seasons back, and all the better for it.

Director Berry plays around with the original's song order a little, in order to set up a through-line, which takes the cast on a journey from their old neighborhood to fame, romance and heartbreaks in their later years. If this sounds like Movin' Out, well it is the same conceit, but that's not a bad thing in this instance.

And this show looks like a little corner of rock and roll heaven, thanks to stellar scenic design by Tom Sturge and Jeffrey Cook, lighting design by Sturge, mural design by Darci L. Dille, costumes by Nanette Acosta and hair and make-up design by Mary Pyanowski.

Though some members of the cast (all of whom live in Seattle, except one who used to!) are more dominant and at home with their material, they all fare very well in the ensemble numbers, whether they be the plaintive "Neighborhood," which opens the show, or the rousing "Stand By Me," which closes it. However, there are two standout performances, one by Charlie Parker who, happily, has become something of a 5th Avenue fixture in recent seasons, and one by Sarah Rudinoff, who deserves to become one. Ms. Parker, who stood by and went on for Frenchie Davis' Effie in the 5th's Dreamgirls, delivers a version of "Hound Dog" that is howlingly good, proves that she's the boss in "You're the Boss" with the amply talented Marc Cedric Smith, and joins Rudinoff and the show's other two sultry songbirds Lisa Estridge and Billie Wildrick for a dynamite quartet to "I'm A Woman." Rudinoff, a big-boned, whiskey voiced stunner, takes a number like "Treat Me Nice" and reinvents it; she has her finest showcase in a rendition of "Pearl's A Singer" that evokes thoughts of Janis Joplin and Bette Midler, yet is distinctly her own, and tantalizes with Parker and Estridge on "Some Cats Know."

Estridge, long a Seattle favorite, does a comic version and blues ballad take on "Fools Fall In Love," serving to display her range and versatility, and is a kick on her version of "Don Juan." Wildrick does well on her act one solo "Falling," and really gets things rocking with her saucy moves on "Shimmy," in a moment torn right out of one of the old Beach Party movies. Louis Hobson warbles sweetly but keeps out the saccharine in "Spanish Harlem," and his Presley-ish vocals and swivels on "Jailhouse Rock" are great fun. Brandon O' Neill, a performer whom I enjoy watching grow stronger and stronger in each show he performs in, goes balls to the wall in his spotlight solo "I Who Have Nothing" and narrowly but successfully avoids going too far with it, but he is rather more enjoyable in his numerous lighter moments, including his lead vocal on "Love Potion #9." Ty Willis is possibly the most effortlessly ingratiating performer in the cast, and he anchors such numbers as "Poison Ivy" and pairs well with Parker on "Love Me/Don't." Marc Cedric Smith has a comic highlight of the show with his wild and woolly version of "Little Egypt," while the solo-less but undeniably talented Bobby Hardy is a solid part of such men's numbers as ""Ruby Baby," "Dance With Me,""There Goes My Baby and, of course, "On Broadway."

Musical director R.J. Tancioco (whose wild abandon at the keyboards is a show in itself) and his onstage band smashingly deliver the perfect instrumental accompaniment, though occasionally the balance between singers and musicians is off at the singer's expense.

If you are neutral on the songs of Leiber and Stoller, this Smokey Joe's Café may make a convert out of you; if you go in a fan, you will very likely come out a bigger one. Smokey Joe's Café runs through November 7, 2004 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. For more information visit the 5th Avenue Theatre on-line at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David-Edward Hughes



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