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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the May 14, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Smokey Joe’s Cafe’

Smokey Joe’s Cafe," the highly acclaimed rock n’

roll musical with music and lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller,

is sizzling at Bristol Riverside Theater. It’s a short, easy (22-mile)

drive down and well worth it. The musical, the longest running musical

revue in Broadway history, had critics raving and audiences stampeding

the box office when it opened in 1995. Add this critic’s rave for

the production here. The job of a critic is to criticize, but how

do you criticize near perfection? You won’t find better on Broadway.

Leiber and Stoller, who virtually invented rock n’ roll, have been

called the Rodgers and Hammerstein of rock n’ roll. Each of the show’s

38 songs tells a story. Since, unlike most musicals, the songs were

written before the musical was put together, "Smokey Joe’s Cafe"

is billed as a musical tribute to Leiber and Stoller. The show’s songs

include such pop classics as "Hound Dog," "Fools Fall

in Love," "There Goes My Baby," "Yakety Yak,"

"Stand by Me," and more. (There’s even a comic song to something

that’s not usually sung about: "Poison Ivy.")

It’s an all singing, all dancing show, a revue with no overarching

story line and no spoken dialogue. The songs — some nostalgic

or yearning, hipster tunes to quieter love ballads, many from or parodies

of the ’50s — are in little or no order. That ultimate put-own,

"Hound Dog," could be any place: it’s in the second act. Each

song is self-contained. The show doesn’t build, but it doesn’t have

to: it holds an enthusiastic, sometimes amused, audience with each

number, and they follow quickly, one upon the other.

Its cast of nine are all newcomers to Bristol Riverside. It’s no

accident of open casting that the majority, six of the nine, in the

cast are black (the ’50s word). Four of the five men (the white actor

is the Elvis-like character) and two of the four women are black.

All give especially energetic, outstanding performances. How come

the show, written by two white men, draws on the black argot? Stoller

learned the basics of blues and boogie woogie from black kids at summer

camp.

There are no "characters" in this performance. Each actor

performs, and is listed in the song performances, under his/her own

first name. Many fine performances come to mind: Arthur (W. Marks)

as the hopeless drunk, D. W. Washburn, David (Havasi) Elvis impersonator

or parodist doing some breathtaking airborne flips. There’s Simone

(DePaolo), with her saucy confidence, amusing asides, and the flick

of her boa, as well as her realistic, turnabout take on Don Juan ("Your

money’s gone."). There’s that most familiar of songs, "Hound

Dog," spat out with churlish vehemence (sung?) by Monica (Pege).

Others in the cast — Brian (Dickerson) with his rich, wonderful

bass, Leslie (Goddard), Jennifer (Houston), Forrest (McClendon),

and Tyrone (Robinson) — also deliver outstanding performances.

Bristol’s artistic director, Edward Keith Baker, directs the show

to an appropriate fast pace. Baker, also the musical director, has

struck a fine balance between the strong loudness of the band and

the strong, also appropriately loud, perfect pitched voices of the

singers (some miked and some not). But where is the live band? It’s

not in the orchestra pit.

The singers with clear, perfect pitched voices are also the dancers

who perfectly execute the innovative and complicated routines designed

by Sharon Halley. And they are the actors who play a different role

with each song. (Very occasionally a character reprises.) They dance,

sometimes strutting, while they sing. It’s unusual to find, in one

person, a fine singer, dancer, and actor. But nine of them?

Halley has choreographed six previous shows for Bristol Riverside.

She has also choreographed several New York shows and over a score

of regional productions. She has been a guest artist in Canada and

Germany, and PBS filmed three of her productions for Great Performances.

Crystal Tiala has designed the sets, the distorted, wacky, tilting,

purple-pink, moveable outside street scene of Spanish Harlem, "the

Old Neighborhood" (of Act I and the beginning of Act 2), and then

the inside of Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ (the name writ large, in silver,

overhead) for the rest of Act II. And as the street scene pulls back,

opening to the cafe’s inside and the full stage depth, there, at center

rear stage, is the live band playing.

The costumes, designed by Lisa L. Zinni, ably reflect the characters,

whether they be Harlem streetwalkers in black, lacy, bathing-suit-tight

teddies, four men in gray business suits, Elvis in his black outfit,

the women in waltz-length formal dance dresses, the company in black

and white striped outfits for their jailhouse rock, or Leslie (Goddard)

in a short silver shredded dress that shimmies as she does, or just

ordinary street clothes. The rapidity of some costume changes astonish.

And Scott Pinkney’s lighting design always captures the mood.

That "near perfection"? Very occasionally a singer’s words

were hard to understand. Perhaps a problem in articulation?

On opening night the audience gave the show a standing ovation. I

concur.

— Joan Crespi

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120

Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. $37 & $39. Wednesday through

Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesday at 2 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m.,

and Sunday to 3 p.m. Show runs to May 25.


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