Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller holds the mantle of Broadway’s longest running musical review. From the Ordway’s spirited production, it is easy to understand why: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s songs run the gamut from jazz to rockabilly all the way to rock. Many of the headliner songs, “Jailhouse Rock,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “Stand by Me,” “Hound Dog,” and of course the titular “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” are clear crowd favorites, but the beauty of a review-style show is that audiences can be introduced to more of Leiber and Stoller’s oeuvre. Needless to say, toes tapped, fingers snapped, and hands clapped all night long! Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a clear winner if you are looking for an intergenerational night out -- it is just as fun as you think it will be!
Beowulf Boritt’s impressive but not overly-busy set (which seems to be a bar circa now) was a permeable backdrop that seems fairly well-utilized by Bergasse’s choreography. Mixing Fosse-style dance moves with a very contemporary, pop angle, it is telling that every one of the songs felt unique, with none of the moves feeling over-played.
This production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe is an “Ordway Original,” which means that instead of simply being a stop on a nationwide tour, this show was nurtured and cast in Minneapolis/Saint Paul. As Joshua Bergasses’s exclaims in his director’s note: “During the audition process in Saint Paul, I was blown away by the talent in the Twin Cities.” It is clear that this new version of the show caters extremely well to every cast member’s forte.
For the amount of music and dancing in this production, this is a small cast -- only 9 cast members deliver big on nearly 40 songs for over an hour and a half. In true review-style, there is not really a plot to Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Instead, Ben Bakken, China Brickey, Kevin Brown, Jr., Shavey Brown, Rendell Debose, Rajané Katurah, Jorie Ann Kosel, Dwight Leslie, and Emily Scinto guide the audience through thematic moods. With a goodly number of group songs, clear groupings emerge, particularly the almost always on-stage quartet: Brown, Brown, Debose and Leslie. Sections often culminate in a reprise or even just a few notes of the nostalgic, but not saccharine-laced, favorite, “Neighborhood”:
Faded pictures in my scrapbook
Just thought I'd take one more look
And recall when we were all
In the neighborhood
Ben Bakken’s “Ruby Baby” and Kevin Brown, Jr.’s “I Who Have Nothing,” were crowd-pleasers for the same reason this show works-- the dynamic range of the songs encapsulated in the review. Bakken’s numbers showcase his smooth voice and contagious energy that makes him a mainstay of Minneapolis musical theater, while Brown jumps head first into genuine feeling, pulling the audience into the depths with him.
China Brickey, Rendell Debose, Rajané Katurah, Jorie Ann Kosel, and Emily Scinto help the show flow smoothly from one song to another. China Brickey deploys her triple-threat talent for singing, dancing, and acting in a number of ways -- from the humorous and lovable physical and vocal comedy of “Dance With Me,” to the satirical “Don Juan,” from the blushing but wow-I-never-really-listened-to-the-lyrics-but-they-are-definitely-problematic “Spanish Harlem” to the sweet but spunky lover in “You’re the Boss,” Brickey is captivating. Rendell Debose’s electric high notes remind me of Little Richie and CeeLo Green. He is over-the-top in the best possible way, and the songs which feature him prominently (such as “Treat Me Nice” and “Love Potion #9”) he had the audience eating out of his hands. Rajané Katurah’s “Hound Dog” and “Fools Fall in Love`.” showcase her large, impressive voice. Often her parts are contextualized within group numbers, so the songs where she leads leaves the audience in no doubt as to her talent. Jorie Ann Kosel takes on a lion’s burden of the show’s pathos with lonesome ballads such as “Pearl’s A Singer” and “I Keep Forgettin’.” Emily Scinto’s big voice and killer dance moves, perhaps best epitomized in “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” were so impressive, and the show clearly leaned on her talent throughout all the numbers.
In a show oozing talent, Shavey Brown and Dwight Leslie were captivating all night long, often stealing the spotlight, even in group numbers. Dwight Leslie, known to local audiences for so many of his CTC performances, is, as always, beyond charming and almost plastic -- contorting his body in many ways, it is almost impossible to watch anyone else dancing while he is on stage. As the bass, Shavey Brown is the metaphorical and musical backbone of this production. While it is hard for a show without a real script or story to have too many punchlines, it seems he gets almost every one! Alternating between warmly kind and genuinely impish, his performance and voice are mesmerizing.
My favorite moments happen when the cast sings a song together, emphasizing the universality of the themes or desires therein (“Kansas City,” “I’m A Woman,” and “On Broadway” stick out in this respect). Reviving Smokey Joe’s Cafe gives the performers the chance to look back at some of the classic songs and musical styles that shape the music we make now, while adding their own flare. They can exaggerate and play with these songs, update them, and lovingly point out their more problematic parts with humor and kindness. The fun of this show is in the re-interpretation.
Don’t miss your chance to see this fantastic Ordway Original. It runs until September 22nd.