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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
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
— Joan Crespi
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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