The Review: Studio 42’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe
If you are looking for some powerfully voiced singers look no further than Stage 42‘s revival of Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller now playing off-Broadway. It is filled to the rim with knock out performances and musical moments that fly non-stop off the stage with such relish and energy, that the gentleman next to me stated that he felt exhausted just watching it all happen. Those men on stage sweat it out, working hard to give us a thrilling good time, and in a way, I couldn’t agree more with my next door neighbor, but I say that with a pinch of salt. There is little to nothing bad to say about this hit filled review compiled from the musical songbook of lyricist Jerome “Jerry” Leiber and composer Mike Stoller, the American songwriting and record producing partners legendary for creating such crossover hit songs such as “Hound Dog” (1952) and “Kansas City” (1952). With music supervision and new arrangements by Sonny Paladino (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre…), the hit parade of songs shoots high into the rafters of this intimate off-Broadway theatre (a theatre, I might add, that I had never been in before, which is shocking, to say the least), catapulting each and every one to heights unknown. It’s impressive, but with so many songs stacked one on top of the other for an exhausting 90 minutes, it’s no surprise that sweat is dripping off these performers’ faces. Nor is it any surprise to me that my excitement started to wane, even with the golden pedigree of the songs matched wonderfully with each of the nine performers on stage. Theatre reviews aren’t generally my thing, I will honest say. There is no story line to follow, nor any characterizations to pay attention to, just song after song performed with style and swagger, and a whole lot of sexy sweet set-ups. And although I never got too swept up in the theatrics, I did enjoy myself. ‘Cute’ is the word that came to mind more than once. Cute, charming, funny, and vocally fantastic, but I’m learning that a plot-free review might just not be enough for this theatre junkie.
Leiber and Stoller wrote hits for Elvis Presley, including “Love Me” (1956), “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), “Loving You“, and “Don’t“. They also collaborated with other writers on such songs as “On Broadway“, written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; “Stand By Me“, written with Ben E. King; “Young Blood“, written with Doc Pomus; and “Spanish Harlem”, co-written by Leiber and Phil Spector. All of which are found here on the playlist of over forty musical numbers sung by one or a few of these nine performers: Dwayne Cooper (Broadway’s Motown), Emma Degerstedt (Off-Broadway’s Desperate Measures), John Edwards (Broadway’s Jersey Boys), Dionne D. Figgins (Broadway’s Memphis), Nicole Vanessa Ortiz (Off-Broadway’s Spamalot), Kyle Taylor Parker (NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar“), Jelani Remy (Broadway’s The Lion King), Max Sangerman (Bucks County’s Rocky Horror), and Alysha Umphress (Broadway’s On The Town). Each one brings something special and unique to the show and the vocal talent pool, exceeding all expectations easily and completely. It’s impressive how they shine and melt together in harmony and unison when needed. Standouts are hard to pin point, as all have a moment to shine and display the talents they bring. But I’ll give it a go….
The women bring it time and time again. Degerstedt delights us all with her long-legged grace and humor with “Falling“, Bossa Nova Baby” (with John), and “Teach Me How To Shimmy” (with Max). Figgins delights with the humorous and delightful “Dance with Me“, and “Don Juan” (with Dwayne). She takes us on a delightful journey to “Spanish Harlem” (with Jelani) leaving us only wanting more. Ortiz brings lung power galore to “Fools Fall in Love” and “Kansas City” (with Max & Alysha), but her “Hound Dog” is one of only a few that falls short of impressive. Luckily and not very surprisingly, she redeems herself magnificently with the encore, “Saved” as her voice is one to be reckoned with. But it is in the wonderful voice of Umphress where the emotional heart lies, diving into the stunning “I Keep Forgettin’” and “Pearl’s a Singer” with gusto and supreme talent. But it is the glorious “Trouble“, with the simply amazing stand up bass guitar playing of Yuka Tadano, that we learn that ‘Misery’ might be her middle name in that song, but stunning ‘Diva’ is her title in real life.
The talented Sangerman sneaks in and rock out to the strumming of his guitar on the phenomenal “Ruby Baby“. His snarly voice is one of the most catchy of the lot, bringing an added moment of pleasure to “Loving You“. The a cappella version of “Keep on Rollin‘”, attacked with the perfect vocal and percussion accompaniment by Cooper, Edwards, Parker, and Remy, is only the beginning with these talented four. They continue to shine and shimmy their way number after hit number, including a stellar version of “On Broadway” that felt a bit too speedy for its own good, but did honor to the original in the end. Cooper solidly brought us “Little Egypt“, as well as Edwards giving us something special with “I Who Have Nothing” and made us fall hard in “Love Me/Don’t” with Emma. Parker delivers a tasty “Love Potion #9” and “There Goes My Baby“, as Remy swivels and shines, performing “Jailhouse Rock” with an energy and excitement that is infectious. I must admit his voice didn’t resonate as much for me with that song, as Elvis might be a hard act to follow, but he brings it forward with “Young Blood“, as his vocal dexterity is continuously astounding.
With arms and butts swinging and shaking with glee brought on by director and choreographer, Joshua Bergasse’s (Drury Lane’s Hazel), this non-stop cafe musical review desires nothing more than to entertain. One can’t deny its power, with Bergasse’s dance moves driving the show forward with barely a breathe taken in between. At times I wish he valued being a bit more smooth over speedy, but even when the songs became silly and slightly ridiculous, (yes, I’m talking to you, Slow Talkin’ “Along Came Jones“), the numbers are delivered with such professionalism and power, that we can only sit back and smile. There is magnificence throughout though, such as the gorgeous “Stand By Me” (John and Company), “Charlie Brown” (full company) and “I’m A Woman” (all the Women with Kyle) deliciously demanding attention and deserving every bit. Musically, the band shines, with orchestrations by Steve Margoshes (Broadway’s Tommy), original vocal arrangements by Chapman Roberts (Broadway/West End”s Hair), additional vocal arrangements by Louis St. Louis (40th anniversary of Grease), music coordination by John Miller (Broadway’s Waitress), with music director/conductor, Matt Oestreicher (Broadway’s Beautiful), showing us, in a moment of individuated glory, some powerful “Dueling Pianos“. But somewhere in there I wanted more substance than effervescent style and shenanigans, but it is as eye-catching as the overly flashy costumes by Alejo Vietti (Broadway’s Holiday Inn) and the neon lights of the warm and inviting set by Beowulf Boritt (Broadway’s Come From Away), with lighting by Jeff Croiter (Broadway’s Bandstand) and sound design by Peter Fitzgerald (John Litgow’s Stories by Heart). They all do the whole deal justice. It’s a thrilling night, if musical reviews are your thing, swinging and rocking their way through the glories of Leiber and Stoller. It’s sung strongly and performed with big bang gusto, but if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, or shot of top-shelf liquor, not to worry, you’ll never be bored or sorry you showed up to Smokey Joe’s Cafe. The sexy siren, Alysha Umphress and the energetic buzz won’t let you.