Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Bright Star, Escaped Alone, and Here We Go: Two Plays by Caryl Churchill and Our Town
If the names Lieber and Stoller don't mean much to you, try the titles of some of the 76 songs the pair are credited with writing: "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock," "Yakety Yak," "On Broadway," "There Goes My Baby," "Love Potion #9," "Spanish Harlem," and "Stand by Me," to name a few. Several of their songs were written in collaboration with others: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil had a hand in "On Broadway," and Ben E. King co-wrote "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand by Me." Still, Lieber and Stoller had a tremendous influence on American pop music, especially through the 1950s and '60s, introducing high production values that helped rhythm and blues morph into soul music, with crossover appeal between black and white audiences.
The titles listed above are just nine of the thirty-five separate songs (not counting a few reprises) featured in Smokey Joe's Cafe. Unless you are an ardent student of America's pop music soundtrack, you won't recognize every song, but you are likely to recall quite a few, and if you like those, you are likely to enjoy those newly making your acquaintance. They are delivered by a band (under the direction of local musical guru Sanford Moore) as sharp as a ripsaw, that whips back and forth between R&B, soul and pop, with a bit of country twang tossed in.
The jukebox musical genre that has run rampant over Broadway for the past couple of decades and looks likely to continue, usually either devises a story around the songs of a certain group of singers or songwriters, a la Mamma Mia!, or uses a singer or writer's songbook to present their biography, such as Jersey Boys. Smokey Joe's Cafe does neither. It simply presents song after song, sometimes with atmospheric segues so that one song melds into the next, other times bringing a number to a full close and after the briefest of pauses, starting out with something altogether different.
Smokey Joe's Cafe is a revue, nothing more and nothing less. Its most successful antecedent was 1978's Ain't Misbehavin', with songs written or recorded by stride pianist Fats Waller, but even that show had consistency by creating an impression of Waller's sensibility and the 1920s-1930s Harlem Renaissance milieu, and the show's credits include Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. as bookwriters. Smokey Joe's Cafe aimed to succeed with no such credit needed, and succeed it did, running 2,036 performances on Broadway, holding the record as the longest running Broadway revue ever, and the 35th longest running show of any stripe.
Last year, Smokey Joe's Cafe was given a well-received Off-Broadway revival, directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, with a set design by Tony Award winner Beowulf Boritt. The Ordway engaged Bergasse to repeat his stage wizardry, snappily moving each number in on the heels of the last, and employing a wide range of choreographic styles as befits the tempo and tone of each song, from country swing to bossa nova. The five men in the cast of ninethat would be Ben Bakken, Kevin Brown, Jr., Shavey Brown, Rendell DeBose and Dwight Leslieall dance spectacularly, though Leslie raises the bar in his dance moves to the uppermost echelon. The four women hold their own, with Emily Scinto and China Brickey especially standing out in several numbers: Scinto in a provocative "Teach Me How to Shimmy" and Brickey testing the men's prowess on the dance floor in "Dance with Me" and as a sultry dance partner in "Spanish Harlem."
Though the show lacks a plot, the opening number, "Neighborhood," establishes Smokey Joe's as a local watering hole where friends and lovers cross paths. Many of the songs express emotions and depict interactions that might take place in the neighborhood. That's as close to a theme as Smokey Joe's Cafe gets. Some of the songs are acted out as well as sung to create miniature vignettes. DuBose, with all four of the other fellows backing him up, sends out a lovesick "There Goes My Baby" that segues into a vengeful "Love Potion #9". Brickey and Brown's comical "You're the Boss, " could be the conversation at the next table in any pub. Others, though, fall outside the realm of the scene at a local bar, such as "Along Came Jones," "Little Egypt", and "Yakety Yak." Then there are some flat-out showbiz turns, straight from a mid-1960s TV variety show, like Brown, Brown Jr., DuBose and Leslie coming out from the wings in sparkling red jackets to deliver a perfect, soulful rendition of "On Broadway," moving with, grace and precision.
Vocally, the production is in terrific shape, with particular kudos to Shavey Brown's wonderfully mellow bass and to Rajané Katurah, who has been working nonstop on Twin City stages for the past year and stops the show with her raucous "Hound Dog," giving it a Big Mama Thornton treatment that pre-dates Elvis Presley's version, then tops herself with a soaring "Fools Fall in Love." Kevin Brown Jr. sends out shivers with "I Who Have Nothing," and Jorie Ann Kosel has a stand-out moment with a lesser known Leiber and Stoller piece, "I Keep Forgetting." Kosel and Katurah are joined by Ben Bakken, guitar in hand, for a rousing "Kansas City."
Borritt's scenic design was adapted to the Ordway stage, offering a comfortable neighborhood tavern with a dark wood-paneled bar and walls and an all-around balcony, with cast members frequently making entrances down the spiral staircases. The joint is lit with neon signs advertising an array of beers and ales on tap, and lighting shifts in hues of pink or purple or scarlet provide a carousel of moods (lighting design by Jeff Croiter and adapted by Coby Chasman-Beck). Jeni O'Malley's costumes are the right mix of Friday night on the town garb, with the ladies a lot more attentive to their wardrobe than the gents, with pulling out the showbiz specials with glamour and glitter.
Smokey Joe's Cafe does not fall intoor even nearthe category of great theater. There is barely any consistency from number to number, it suggests nothing to ponder on the way home, and the sequencing of the songs seems random, other than having their presentations constantly moving upward from good to great to wow! But, man, this is great entertainment. With fabulous singing and dancing, a killer band, and a chance to wax nostalgic for some old, well-loved songs, the cheering audience on opening night responded as if that was more than enough to leave the Ordway with their feet tapping and their faces framed in broad smiles.
Smokey Joe's Cafe runs through September 23, 2019, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets range from from $91.00 - $30.00. Educator and high school/college student rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain, two tickets per valid ID. For tickets and information call 651-224-4222 or go to Ordway.org.
Words and Music: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Director and Choreographer: Joshua Bergasse; Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design: Jeni O'Malley; Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter: Lighting Design Adopted by: Coby Chasman-Beck; Sound Design: Andy Horka; Music Director: Sanford Moore; Orchestrations: Sonny Paladino and Steve Margoshes; Music Supervision and New Arrangements: Sonny Paladino; Original Vocal Arrangements: Chapman Roberts; Additional Vocal Arrangements: Louis St. Louis; Original Concepts: Stephen Helper and Jack Viertel; Casting: Sheena Janson, Kelley, Jason Styres, CSA; Associate Director and Choreographer: Alison Solomon; Stage Manager: Jenny Lang.
Cast: Ben Bakken, China Brickey, Kevin Brown Jr., Shavey Brown, Rendell DeBose, Rajané Katurah, Jorie Ann Kosel, Dwight Leslie, Emily Scinto.