Long before there was the jukebox musical, there was the musical revue, and few songwriters have as many fabulous songs worthy of a musical revue than Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. The show Smokey Joe’s Cafe, featuring 39 of their songs, opened in 1995, running for 2,036 performances.
The revival of the musical at Stage 42 features an incredibly energetic cast of nine performers. Guy groups such as The Coasters and the Drifters originally performed many of the Lieber-Stoller songs. Smokey Joe’s Café boasts a talented quartet of male singers who perform these famous songs under the direction of choreographer/director Joshua Bergasse. While their combined sound is terrific, they display their own musical personalities as well. Jelani Remy has a great voice and is a marvelous dancer showing impressive athleticism in his dance routines. Towards the end of the show he sings the romantic “A Rose in Spanish Harlem” and performs a sensual dance with Dionne D. Figgins. Dwayne Cooper uses his booming deep voice in some of the novelty songs like “Charlie Brown” asking, “Why is everyone always picking on me?” John Edwards displays his soulful Ben E. King sound in “I Who Have Nothing” while Kyle Taylor Parker gets to be the clown featured in novelty songs like “Love Potion #9.” The fifth man in the cast, Max Sangerman, the lone rockabilly singer, plays a great guitar.
Lieber and Stoller also wrote several songs for Elvis Presley and sometimes the show offers them sung in their original format. Nicole Vaness Ortiz sings “Hound Dog” in a slower version than Elvis’s famous hit. Ortiz sings one of the earliest numbers in the show “Fools Fall In Love” and then reprises it at the end. The first time the singer is observing while the second version is more powerful as if the singer knows from experience.
The four women in the cast hold their own. Figgins does a flirtatious version of “Dance With Me” and Emma Degerstedt shows off her dancing and singing skills in songs like “Teach Me How To Shimmy” and “Bossa Nova Baby.” When the two combine with Ortiz and the incredible Alysha Umphress to sing “I’m A Woman,” they bring the house down.
Beowulf Boritt's marvelous set is busy and visually titillating. Every piece of wall space is filled with liquor bottles, old radios, books and neon signs advertising beers.
Jukebox musicals usually tell a story, even though sometimes they are tenuously connected, as in the recent Escape to Margaritaville. However, the songs of Smokey Joe’s Café have no theme and no connection. The show doesn’t seem to group them at all. There are novelty songs such as “Yakety Yak, “Along Came Jones” and “Poison Ivy,” love songs such as “There Goes My Baby” and “Loving You” and poignant songs like “Pearl’s A Singer,” plaintively sung by the powerful Umphress. Despite the lack of story, several of the songs are acted out as they are sung. The comic novelty numbers are well done and humorous.
The show’s extraordinary musicians are on stage, playing for almost the entire 90 minutes and often even highlighted by a roll-out platform. I found myself marveling at the quick hands of Musical Director Matt Oestreicher, especially during “Dueling Pianos.”
The cast and orchestra work extremely hard and their talents pay off because the audience loves the performance. If you don’t know the melodies and can’t sing along, you still can’t help but move to the music anyway. For those who grew up with the songs, Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a wondrous trip down musical memory lane. For those new to the music, the show is a great introduction to the talents of Lieber and Stoller.