Smokey Joe’s Café, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, is a “juke-box revue”—which means it’s a non-stop sequence of songs by Leiber and Stoller (some with others) with no dialogue or scenery. The strength of this Grammy-winning Broadway show is in the material—L & S were great!—and in the performers, and everyone here gets to show-boat at some point in this invigorating show. The songs are sequenced and choreographed so as to give the proceedings a certain continuity, beginning in the “Neighborhood” and, after some dallying with “Young Blood” and “Ruby Baby,” getting on board a train to “Keep on Rollin’” to “Kansas City,” “Searchin’” for and sometimes finding “Trouble.” Well, “Fools Fall in Love,” some with “Don Juan,” some with “Poison Ivy.” Eventually we arrive as an aspiring wanna-be “On Broadway,” followed—pointedly—by “D. W. Washburn,” about a skid row derelict who rejects charity, followed in turn by “Saved,” a big gospel number with Dawn Marie Driver bringing down the house (or raising the dead) for an Act I closer.
Act II gets into the straight-out rockin’ part of the show, beginning with “Baby That is Rock & Roll” and taking us through teen-focused hits like “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.” If you’re surprised that Driver covers Elvis’ hit “Hound Dog,” don’t be—it was written for, and was a big hit for, Big Mama Thornton, and that’s the way Driver delivers it after an intro that’ll give you goosebumps. But don’t worry, there’s ersatz Elvis to be had elsewhere—check out Jay Rivera flinging his hips to “Jailhouse Rock” or Johnathan Celestin swallowing the vocal King-style. Other great moments in Act II: Stevanie Anita Williams torching up “Pearl’s a Singer”; the four female singers giving “I’m a Woman” a definitive treatment; Farmecia Ward, who is great at flirting with male audience members—even sitting on the lap (and taking the wallet of) one lucky soul—gives “Some Cats Know” plenty of feline sleekness, and Jose Figueroa, Jr. pulls out all the stops on “I (Who Have Nothing)” which gets almost operatic in its pathos. Meanwhile, Ron Lucas sends up tear-jerky songs on “There Goes My Baby” and lets the crowd join in on “Love Potion #9.” Then there’s Driver taking it on home with a “Fools Fall in Love” that will leave you breathless. Finally, “Stand By Me” gets a full spiritual treatment to end the set.
Along the way, the members of the cast have fun with audience members—which might include getting your hair tousled by a slinky siren, or pulled up on your feet to dance with a guy or a gal. Audience members in the lower seats should be warned that their participation may be required. The night I saw the show there were some impressive impromptu moves from the stalls. Like Ray Davies says, “everybody’s in show-biz.”
And how about that band? They fill the Long Wharf space without overwhelming the singers, backing an upbeat show that will have you—if you’ve got a pulse—bopping along, chiming in, and on your feet by the end. Even if you didn’t grow up with these songs—I have to admit that most of them are before my time—you’ll find yourself reliving an era of pop music that’s the basis for so much of what once flourished on AM radio. After all, how many composers can boast that they were covered by both Elvis and The Beatles?
The Irving Street Rep’s Production of Smokey Joe’s Café Featuring the Songs of Leiber and Stoller Directed by A. Curtis Farrow
John Bronstein: Musical Director & Pianist; Darius Frowner: Musical Director; Hassan Wilkerson: Stage Manager
The Cast: Vida Allworthy, Derrick Baker, Johnathan Celestin, Dawn Marie Driver, Jose Figueroa, Jr., Ron Lucas, Jay Rivera, Famecia Ward, Stevanie Anita Williams
Musicians: Piano: John Bronsten; Drums: Bruce Jackson; Sax: Rick Matt; Bass: Jeff Fuller; Guitar: Dominic Landolfi
The Long Wharf Theatre July 10-28, 2013