Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
After its more than 2000 shows on the Great White Way and a national tour, Smokey Joe's Cafe quickly became a stable for many regional companies. Broadway by the Bay now presents a totally local production that looks, feels and sounds as if it could be part of a Broadway-based tour. Toes are tapping, fingers snapping, and audience members grin ear-to-ear trying their best not to sing along, as a cast of ten sings and dances the many songs that need no more than a few notes to be recognized by the majority of those in attendance.
The seventy-plus songs this prolific duo penned in their career were often transformed into mega-hits by the likes of Elvis, the Drifters, the Coasters, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Peggy Lee. Hits included in Smokey Joe's Cafe range from novelty songs ("Charlie Brown" and "Yakety Yak") to romantic ballads ("Spanish Rose"), anthems ("I'm a Woman"), show tunes ("On Broadway"), and infectious melodies that linger in one's head long after ending ("Neighborhood," "Poison Ivy," "There Goes My Baby"). There is also their original jackpot, Elvis's "Hound Dog" (in this show sung by a woman to a man she is reprimanding) as well the well-known "Jailhouse Rock," also made famous by Elvis Presley.
Brandon Jackson directs the super-talented cast in a continuous flow of songs that loosely connect in their transitions, but with no storyline beyond the words of the individual songs and the way the actors act each song's meaning. The many and varied costumes of Leandra Watson are a show unto themselves and add colorful context, sensuality, class and humor to the individual numbers. Aaron Spivey's fabulously multi-dimensional lighting combines with Kelly James Tighe's multi-level, metal-framed stage to create an urban, back-street feel, providing a setting to showcase numbers that take place in bars, cafes, and apartment balconies.
From the swirling, close, opening harmonies of four guys who are "ooh-ing" to set the stage for a full-cast-sung "Neighborhood," it is clear we are in for an evening of exceptional music and all-around entertainment. Songs are sung in all combinations, with most performers having a chance to be in the solo spotlight as well as to sing in varying duets, trios, quartets, and so on. Many numbers are choreographed by Camille Edralin with attention to amazingly coordinated movements by back-up singers and to the dances of the era by the entire company. Bodies fly and twirl; arms move in parallel in every extended manner possible; and full-on splits, falls, and rolls appear second nature to this talented troupe.
As Adrian, Anthone Jackson's voice penetrates deeply, almost to cause one's heart to skip a beat, as he croons in sad, blue tones, "Love Me/Don't," begging Pattie (Majesty Scott) for her affection. She answers him in a loving, enticing voice to allay his fears, their eyes locking, and then their voices join for lovemaking in song. Mr. Jackson later astonishes as his Adrian becomes a love-sick puppy, literally rolling on the floor while singing his heart out in "There Goes My Baby." Ms. Scott's Pattie also gives us a gossipy "Pearl's a Singer" in which notes linger in the tattling telling, giving way to a rougher blast of declaring her views about this Pearl.
Montel Anthony Nord as Ken so easily eases into each number that his graceful, smooth notes seem effortless, even as we are in awe of the voice's soft beauty and crystal clarity (as in "Spanish Harlem"). That debonair sound also can quickly open up to a full-on delivery of trumpeted sound, as he so ably shows in "Dance with Me." On that song, he is joined by Jessica Coker (in the role of BJ), who not only can sing in soulful, measured notes that have the ability to hang in the air while building in powerful force ("Fools Fall in Love" Reprise), but who can also raise the roof as she preaches in a rousing, arm-raising revival, "Saved." The genius of director and choreographer shines in that number, as it is clear that the poor souls being saved all have individual stories that are unique and worth watching/knowingbut there is so much fury and frenzy of overall movement, there's no time to concentrate on any one person.
Victor (Cadarious Mayberry) is another who has the ability to rip one's heart open as he almost cries while singing in tones rich and emotional of his love in "I (Who Know Nothing)." When Fred (Anthony Rollins-Mullens) joins Victor, Ken, and Adrian in an oft-appearing quartet, they quickly convince us that this is a foursome that needs to go on the road together post-Smokey Joe's. In numbers like "Keep on Rollin'," nothing less than an open-mouthed "Wow" can describe not only their close-knit harmonies that are so pure and fun, but also their totally in-synch, bouncing, swaying bodies. It is as if a puppeteer is controlling their every movement as a quartet, so exact and together they are in their extensions, sways and turns. The male quartet sometimes becomes a quintet when Chris Aceves as Michael joins them. His tenor voice brings much appeal, often sliding into heavenly heights and back down again with no effort ("Ruby Baby").
The women also join forces in various groupings, but it is their individual and collective efforts in "I'm a Woman" (championed by Peggy Lee) where they assert, declare, and command in voices loud, proud, and flaming zeal, "'Cause I'm a woman! W-O-M-A-N." Patti and BJ are joined by DeLee (Cheyenne Wells) and Brenda (Janelle LaSalle) for this crowd-pleaser. DeLee has already used her rippling voice to trip easily over musical scales with "Falling," employing a wry smile as if to say loud and clear, "Listen up, I'm good." Brenda struts her stuff in brown boa and sparkling, knock-'em dead dress as she lets it be known she is taking no crap and is an independent force to be reckoned in "Don Juan."
Even music director and pianist Sean Kana gets to let loose vocally in a winning duet with Ken ("Stay a While"); and his entire, extremely excellent band has a chance to shine individually in act two's opening, "Baby, That Is Rock & Roll." Danny Min plays a mean bass; Steve Cassinelli, a vibrant guitar; Larry DeLaCruz, a hyped-up sax; and Ken Bergman, a take-notice set of drums.
In the end, no reviewer's words can do justice to an evening of electric entertainment like Broadway by the Bay's Smokey Joe's Cafe. It grabs hold of its audience in the opening notes, shakes them up in number after number's eye-popping choreography, and then leaves them in the end with big grins and ear-worms that probably will not go away for days.
Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller continues through June 18, 2017, for Broadway by the Bay at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA. Tickets are available online at www.broadwaybythebay.org.