Saturday, July 28, 2018

54 (2018-2019): Review: SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE (seen July 27, 2018)

Jukebox musicals come in every size, shape, and color, particularly when it comes to the use of a range of narrative devices holding the songs together. These range from biographical accounts of the artists represented (Beautiful, Jersey Boys) to fictional stories (Mamma Mia!) to shows like the 1995 Broadway smash, Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, which ran a record-breaking (for a revue) 2,036 performances. That show, now in a rousing revival at Stage 42 (formerly the Little Shubert), has no story at all but is simply an arrangement of popular songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller presented seriatim without even a single word of dialogue. 
John Edwards, Jelani Remy, Dwayne Cooper, Kyle Taylor Parker. Photo: Julia Russell.
Its approach, however, shouldn’t prevent anyone with a melody in their head, rhythm in their bones, and nostalgia in their heart from boogying down to 42nd Street to see and hear this awesomely entertaining revival roll out a succession of mid-20th-century chart toppers. Nine gloriously talented, supercharged, ultra-personable performers, five men and four women, the majority non-white, demonstrate a powerful arsenal of vocal, terpsichorean, and comic skills that keep the audience engaged for an intermissionless hour and 30 minutes.

Working on Beowulf Borrit’s elaborately detailed, two-level barroom set representing the eponymous locale, with spiral staircases at either side and upstage shelves filled with an assortment of vintage radios (props to prop master Deb Gaouette!), this band of solid pros rocks through 40 solid numbers accompanied by an eight-member band ensconced in an alcove at stage left. Almost every song is so well done that the lack of dialogue or background exposition—which allows for more numbers—is a blessing in disguise.
Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, Emma Degerstedt, Dwayne Cooper, Max Sangerman. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Director-choreographer Joshua Bergasse (Charley and the Chocolate Factory), basing his work on the original concept of Stephen Helper and Jack Viertel, compensates for the lack of a storyline by finding the dramatic soul of each song and theatricalizing it with varying degrees of physical expression. Occasionally, however, an attempt to get laughs from a song goes too far, as with “Dance with Me.” Now and then, a song will bleed into another with suggestions of an ongoing character relationship but this never lasts long enough to become anything substantial.
Jelani Remi, Shavey Brown, John Edwards, Max Sangerman, Dwayne Cooper (front). Photo: Joan Marcus.
While all the performers can dance, some are virtuosos at the art, particularly the athletic Jelani Remy, whose “Jailhouse Rock” is a knockout; the lithe Emma Degerstedt, whose booty shaking will yank your eyeballs out of their sockets in “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” and the slinkily sexy Dionne T. Figgins, who sets pulses racing to songs like “Dance with Me” and “Spanish Harlem.”
Dionne T. Figgins, Dwayne Cooper. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Leiber and Stoller’s wide musical vocabulary has room for traditional rock and roll (including lots of Elvis-related material), doo-wop, rhythm and blues, country-western, and power ballads. The singing is consistently potent; in fact, one of the show’s few drawbacks is that several gentle songs receive overly pumped up renditions, creating a feeling akin to a TV singing competition. For pure excitement, though, watch John Edwards explode with emotional TNT when he sings “I Who Have Nothing,” giving Tom Jones a run for his money, or plus-sized Alysha Umphress, looking sensational in flame-colored tresses as she blasts “Trouble” (accompanied by bassist Yuka Tadano).
Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Shavey Brown, Kyle Taylor Parker (above). Photo: Gary Ng.
Nor can we ignore guitar playing singer Max Sangerman, who covers Elvis’s “Ruby Baby” and “Loving You,” and Kyle Taylor Parker, whose several numbers include another Elvis favorite, “Treat Me Nice.” And even the band gets into the act with a bring-down-the-house version of “Dueling Pianos.”

The show also has a perfect bass baritone in Dwayne Cooper, who adds his lowdown grace notes to ensemble songs like “Charley Brown” and “Yakety Yak,” and leads the other men in “Little Egypt.” The most remarkable chops belong to Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, insanely good whenever her powerhouse voice detonates with songs like “Fools Fall in Love,” “Hound Dog,” and “Saved.”
Emma Degerstedt, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Dionne T. Figgins, Alysha Umphress. Photo: Joan Marcus.

In case you need reminding, other golden oldie anthems included from the Leiber and Stoller songbook include “Young Blood,” “Kansas City,” “Poison Ivy,” “On Broadway,” “I’m a Woman,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Love Potion #9,” and the unforgettable, “Stand By Me,” favorite of crooning subway beggars.

Cool lighting by Jeff Croiter (keep an eye on those radios when the lights go down low) and superb, hipster-styled costumes by Alejo Vietti, help make Smokey Joe’s Cafe a smokin’ experience. When you see reviewers (myself included) tapping their feet and clapping their hands at a show, you know this is one certain generations—i.e., mine and those right after—will get a huge kick out of.

On the other hand, when I hear otherwise “woke” young people say they’re not interested in shows like My Fair Lady, to cite one example, because it’s “old music,” I worry that Leiber and Stoller may already sound to them like Mozart and other dead white men.


Stage 42
422 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 6