By Donna Herman
If you know how much it costs to mount a new Broadway musical, it won’t come as a surprise that the longest running original revue on the Great White Way, Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, is back…Off-Broadway. And this is a good thing for the audience. It means we can enjoy iconic songs of yesteryear by the legendary team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, sung by tomorrow’s stars, for half the price of a Broadway ticket. Oh snap.
Conceived by Stephen Helper & Jack Viertel, Smokey Joe’s Café doesn’t mess around with plot contrivance or try to squeeze the songs into a theme. It’s just the songs, folks, no dialog, no patter. And really, the songs speak for themselves. Leiber & Stoller wrote over 70 chart hits and were recorded by such artists as Elvis Presley, The Drifters, The Coasters, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, and over a thousand others. They were inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and they have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
This time around Smokey Joe’s Café is directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, who does a stunning job of choreographing the men in their group numbers. “Along Came Jones,” “Poison Ivy,” and “Love Potion #9” were masterpieces of great choreography combined with great comic timing. Kyle Taylor Parker stood out in these comedic numbers as a triple threat. Not only does he have a great singing voice and killer dancing chops, but he’s a spot-on comedian who can communicate a character with the tilt of his head or an inflection of his voice. He knocked it out of the park in “Along Came Jones” as the damsel in distress Sweet Sue.
But it wasn’t only the comic numbers that were terrific. Jelani Remy absolutely killed it with Bergasse’s exciting and clever choreography in “Jailhouse Rock.” It’s such an iconic song and so closely associated with Elvis Presley that it’s tricky to do. Bergasse’s choreography was incredibly athletic and powerful and had Remy showing off his insane skills with panache and flair, while tipping their hats to The King.
The women too were incredible and my only bone to pick is that they weren’t used as a group more, as the men were. I kept waiting for the women to do a number together and when it finally came in the form of “I’m A Woman,” I wasn’t disappointed. Which is not to say that they didn’t have their own numbers. Dionne D. Figgins doing “Don Juan” had the audience eating out of her hand. Nicole Vanessa Ortiz’s “Hound Dog” made it clear that the song was meant to be sung by a woman. Sorry, Elvis. And Alysha Umphress’ voice was a revelation every time she opened her mouth to sing. From the bluesy, sultry “Trouble” to the wistful “Pearl’s A Singer,” I couldn’t wait for her to sing again. And while Emma Degerstedt is a fine singer, I will never forget her dancing in “Teach Me How To Shimmy.” That woman shimmied vigorously for over two minutes straight. Heck, I was winded when she was done.
Smokey Joe’s Café is a hand-clapping, finger-snapping, foot-stomping, good time at the theater. And if that’s not enough – at Stage 42 there’s actually leg room in the seats and you won’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy a ticket. You heard it here first folks.
Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller Words and Music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Directed and Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse; Music Supervisor and New Arrangements by Sonny Paladino.
WITH: Dwayne Cooper, Emma Degerstedt, John Edwards, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani Remy, Max Sangerman, Alysha Umphress, Shavey Brown (Standby), Antoinette Comer (Standby), Dan Domenech (Standby), Bronwyn Traboton (Standby & Dance Captain).
MUSICIANS: Matt Oestreicher (Conductor, Synths); Doug Derryberry (Associate Conductor, Guitars, Synths); Music Coordinator (John Miller); Sherrod Barnes (Guitars); Yuka Tadano (Bass); Brandon Wright (Reeds); Eric Brown (Drums); Wilson Torres (Percussion), Jeff Marder (Electronic Music Design).
Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Orchestrations by Sonny Paladino and Steve Margoshes; Original Vocal Arrangements by Chapman Roberts; Vocal Consultant, Liz Caplan; Associate Choreographer, Alison Solomon; Original Concept by Stephen Helper and Jack Viertel. Presented by Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel. At Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street. Performances Mon, Tue & Thu at 7pm, Fri and Sat at 8pm, Sat and Sun at 3pm, and Sun at 7:30pm. For tickets visit www.telecharge.com, call 212-239-6200 or visit the Box Office in person at 422 West 42nd Street.