Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Smokey Joe's Cafe
Set against a background of vibrant colors that are muted by a dark overlay and simple geometric shapes, set designer Michael McClain has created an unassuming platform that allows the performers to shine. And shine they do, for the most part. Although harmonies envelop the stage under black, Ardean Landhuis' lighting design illuminates nearly every actor to great effect during their solos.
Working almost seamlessly together, the eight-member cast not only support one another, but they humbly make way for fellow actors to stand out. In "Dance with Me," although Aili Venho is not featured in this number, her facial reactions juxtaposed against her sunny yellow dress are a hoot. "Searching"" is a cohesive and successful number, largely due to Austin Rivers' animated dancing and singing; this is the first of several moments where he asserts himself as a star. Others are when he demonstrates his skill as a physical comedian in the hilarious "Poison Ivy" and his acting and singing prowess in "D.W. Washburn." Despite "Trouble" not faring as well due to staging issues and commitment from the cast, Charisse Shields sashays and sizzles, outdoing Stephanie Loverde effortlessly. On more than one occasion ("Don Juan" being another), Smokey Joe's Cafe is an outlet for Shields to exhibit her talent, even more so than her recent role as Deena Jones in Stage Door Theatre's Dreamgirls. Loverde does redeem herself nicely in act two's "Teach Me How to Shimmy" with her lively dancing.
It is clear that a lot of hard work and effort from the cast and crew goes into Smokey Joe's Cafe, based on the high number of transitions and by the show's design: there are 39 song and dance numbers to plow through. What makes it especially challenging for the performers and the patrons alike is the lack of an overarching story. It is challenging for the performers because there is no continuity or emotional development in their characters; in essence, they are tasked with executing 39 vignettes. For the patrons, unless they can embrace Smokey Joe's Cafe as more of a concert than a musical, song after song without a theme or message to string things together can become tedious and monotonous, even though Kevin Black's strong choreography and direction creates short stories for each piece.
Another element that creates a story is Jerry Sturdefant's costumes. Although the looks are sometimes inconsistent, ill-fitting and cheap-lookinglike the costume worn by Nethaneel Williams in "Spanish Harlem"most can be considered period pieces and all are very colorful. They definitely assist the patron in plugging into a different time and atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the microphones are too successful at unplugging us from fantasy. Affixed to the actors' faces with noticeable tape, the practical but unsightly and uncomfortable-looking application reminds us that we are the audience at a spectacle, not participants in an experience; perhaps flesh-colored tape would be more appropriate.
Although act one is the front runner for individual and distinguished performances, act two wins the crown for better execution. Both acts begin in a similar fashion, but the second act takes better advantage of staging multiple songs in one setting, creating a more practical and harmonious effect with fewer set changes. Act two also boasts better continuity, with a few characters moving from one song to the next, giving the audience a taste of a narrative that they may be hungering for.
Smokey Joe's Cafe has a little bit of everything and a whole lot to see and hear. There are novelty songs like "Charlie Brown," romantic ballads like "Spanish Harlem," and infectious melodies like "There Goes My Baby." As a patron, you'll also be exposed to a collage of songs that legendary singers have graced the stage to sing in past productions, since the show's inception in 1994. The long-running Broadway run at the Virginia Theatre from 1995-2000 featured performances by Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, Ben E. King, Rick Springfield, Gloria Gaynor, Pam Tillis, and Tony Orlando. Overall, you may not be emotionally invested in Smokey Joe's Cafe, but you'll never be bored.
Stage Door Theatre's Smokey Joe's Cafe, through January 14th, 2018, at Stage Door Theatre, 8036 West Sample Road, Margate FL. Showtimes are Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm and Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm. For tickets and information please call 954-344-7765 or visit www.stagedoorfl.org