Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Smokey Joe's Café

Niles Rivers (in arms) with Maceo Oliver, John Woodard III and
T.C. Carson

Smokey Joe's Café, now running at the El Portal in North Hollywood, is a jukebox musical. It consists of 39 songs written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, put together in a revue. There's no pretense of a book—no silly story in which well-known songs are given apparently new meanings by virtue of context. There are only the very slightest hints of character; only rarely does a singer seem to be carrying a persona from one song to the next. This show is simply all about the music—it's pretty much a very tightly produced, staged concert.

But what this means is that the show succeeds or fails based on how well the singers sing the songs. And, for the most part, the company assembled for this particular revival delivers. It starts with DeLee Lively, who was Tony-nominated for her performance in the original Broadway production. More than ten years later, Lively can still shimmy like nobody's business, and her unstoppable execution of "Teach Me How To Shimmy" should be required viewing for every celebrity contemplating a run on "Dancing with the Stars." Sharon Catherine Blanks (formerly Sharon Brown) brings her huge voice to the first-act closer, "Saved," with an energy that jumps the stage and excites the audience. And dancer Dionne Figgins has a rich, sultry voice that perfectly matches her kittenish choreography.

But the real vocal standout of the production is the quartet of T.C. Carson, Maceo Oliver, Niles Rivers, and John Woodard III. Whether smoothly harmonizing on "Keep On Rollin'," grooving a jazzy "On Broadway" or cutely rocking "Poison Ivy," they have a terrific sound. They each get a chance to take a lead vocal, and none of them is weaker than the others. Together, they have splendid harmonies that made me wish the show included an a capella number. And while each of the solo singers in the show has at least one song in which they don't live up to their full potential, the quartet is delightfully solid.

Well, they're solid vocally. Their execution of quartet choreography is a bit less precise. It isn't that one of the guys isn't as strong a dancer as the others; it's just that the dancing lacks a crispness of execution. In one number, three men kick a bit more enthusiastically than the fourth; in another, a different man doesn't lean as far as the other three. It's minor but noticeable, and keeps the show feeling a bit less Broadway-caliber than it's aiming for. Also troublesome are several of the costumes. Blanks begins the show in a skirt that is visibly too tight; and Lively twice finds herself wearing the same revealing costume as one of her younger co-stars, and she doesn't fare well by the comparison. There's no need for this; Lively starts the second act in a little black dress that perfectly complements her figure—the unflattering costumes create an unnecessary distraction.

At the performance reviewed, the audience didn't seem to care—clearly enjoying the performances and occasionally singing along. The show never drags, and instead delivers nearly 40 songs with a palpable sense of joy. It simply lacks a coat of polish.

Smokey Joe's Café runs through January 4, 2009. For tickets and information, visit

Weddington Street Productions—Gary Goodgame, Bernard Kaufman, Jay Irwin, Pegge Forrest—in association with Corky Hale Productions presents Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller. Words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Production Technical Director Jeremy Ordaz; Lighting Design Brendan Grevatt; Costume Supervisor Maurilia Mendez; Production Stage Manager Chris Warren Murry; Set Provided by McCoy Rigby Productions; Public Relations and Marketing Forrest & Associates. Musical Direction by Darryl Archibald. Directed and Choreographed by Jeffrey Polk.

DeLee Lively
Robert Torti
Sharon Catherine Blanks
T.C. Carson
Dionne Figgins
Maceo Oliver
Niles Rivers
Jackie Seiden
John Woodard III

Photo: Ed Krieger

- Sharon Perlmutter

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