Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Era of Rock 'N' Roll Returns in Smokey Joe's Cafe

Enthusiastic theatergoers kept the 1995 jukebox musical Smokey Joe's Cafe, The Songs of Stoller and Leiber on Broadway for a record-breaking run of five years. As the exemplary revival with which the Paper Mill Playhouse is currently greeting the spring can only remain on stage there until May 2, you will have to act quickly to get your rock 'n' roll fix. At Smokey Joe's, you will hear forty songs written by two of the best and most wide-ranging composer/lyricists in the field, performed by an enthusiastic and delightful company of singer/actors.

The Leiber and Stoller songs performed here cover a period of almost thirty-five years, beginning with songs which defined the crossover of rhythm and blues into mainstream rock 'n' roll. An early classic example is "Hound Dog" written for Big Mama Thornton, whose recording has long been overshadowed by the monster hit it became for Elvis Presley.

Andrew Rannells, Bernard Dotson, E. Clayton Cornelious, Dennis Stowe, Eric LaJuan Summers,
Jackie Burns, Carly Hughes, Felicia Finley and Maia Nkenge Wilson

Stoller and Leiber wrote for male groups, particularly The Coasters (in the '60s), and, thereafter, for girl groups (working with Phil Spector). Four of the men are particularly delightful performing as a quartet to deliver some of the most memorable, upbeat group tunes of their era. E. Clayton Cornelious, Dennis Stowe, Bernard Dotson and Eric LaJuan Summers shine on The Coasters' song "Searchin' (Gonna Find Her)", and are resplendent in sharkskin suits singing The Drifters (and later George Benson) hit "On Broadway." Andrew Rannells channels Elvis' energy and suggestive movement performing a solid "Jailhouse Rock." Bernard Dotson brings a doo-wop sound to "Loving You." The bass notes of Dennis Stowe, a particularly stylish performer, highlight several numbers. Eric LaJuan Summers strongly delivers the power ballad "I (Who Have Nothing)," which was a hit for Tom Jones.

The aforementioned "Hound Dog" is sung here by Paper Mill's own "Big Mama," Maia Nkenge Wilson. Wilson, who is wicked with a wink in her eye, delivers a rousing version which neatly bisects the work of her famed predecessors. Wilson may even have you thinking of Ella when she brings the sound of big band jazz to "Fools Fall in Love." Carly Hughes exudes sensuality even as she mocks it when performing LaVern Baker's "Don Juan." Jackie Burns dances up a heat wave shimmying to "Teach Me How to Shimmy." Felicia Finley delights with her country-western styled "Pearl's a Singer."

The sounds of the blues, big band jazz, doo-wop, power ballads, country, novelty songs and gospel provide stimulating variety to both cast and audience. The cleverness of Leiber and Stoller's lyrics is well above the norm for this style of music (their "Poison Ivy" contains the rhyme: "You're gonna need an ocean/ of calamine lotion").

The seven member on-stage band, with musical director Tom Helm on the keyboards, provides strong accompaniment throughout. Listen for "D.W. Washburn"'s Kander and Ebb style vamp, you'll enjoy it.

There is a pass at a bit of a book at the beginning (memories of the old neighborhood) followed by a couple of "travelling" songs, but this is abandoned very early on. The opening doo-wop song ("Neighborhood") is slotted back in just before the finale. Thus, Smokey Joe's Cafe is for those who need no context for their musicals beyond "Let's get ready to rock 'n' roll".

Jonathan Spencer's simple, effective scenery features various simple backgrounds which often include neon lights as well as other lighting effects (two arches of flashing lights suggest a jukebox). The on-stage band is most often framed by a jukebox design and is playing from within it; at other times, tables and chairs, and a "Smokey Joe's Cafe" neon sign create a nightclub setting. Brian Hemesath's flashy costumes are a major plus.

And I haven't yet mentioned such classics as "Kansas City," "Yakety Yak," "Loving You" and "Stand By Me." It should be noted that Leiber and Stoller sometimes collaborated with other writers over the course of their careers, and any number of such collaborations are included in this revue.

The fast-paced direction has been provided by Mark S. Hoebee, and the entertaining choreography is the work of Denis Jones. Together with a solid cast, they have provided Paper Mill audiences with a first rate Smokey Joe's Cafe

Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller (Evenings: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Sun. 7 pm; Matinees Thursday, Saturday & Sunday 1:30 pm) through May 2, 2010 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343. Online:

Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller: directed by Mark Hoebee

Jackie Burns
E. Clayton Cornelious
Bernard Dotson
Felicia Finley
Carly Hughes
Andrew Rannells
Dennis Stone
Eric LaJuan Summers
Maia Nkenge Wilson

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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- Bob Rendell

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