‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ jumps with nostalgia at Cap Rep
By PAUL LAMAR
For The Daily Gazette
When you see this revue at Capital Rep — and you must — you will quickly begin making a mental list of people who should get a ticket. It’s that entertaining.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is not, in the conventional sense, a musical. There is no dialogue, so a storyline is not the point. The point is to put the familiar songs of Jerry Leiber (1933-2011) and Mike Stoller (1933) into the hands of nine performers and let them strut their stuff, which they do here to jaw-dropping effect.
Whether they’re banging out novelty numbers, like “Yakety Yak,” or rock and roll, like “Hound Dog,” or jazzy blues, like “Some Cats Know,” or romantic ballads, like “Dance With Me,” the cast and director/choreographer Richard J. Hinds reveal the heart of each piece: Every song becomes a mini-drama.
Taking us back
But there actually is a little story hook in the opening number, “Neighborhood,” one that cleverly draws the audience (particularly those of us over 60) into the show. The singers reminisce about their neighborhood, prompting us, too, to look back, to the time (the 1950s and ’60s) when we were young and these songs were popular.
The sequence of songs also suggests the yearning for love and adventure that characterizes adolescence; indeed, it’s not until the 11th song, “Love Me/Don’t,” that anyone manages to land a kiss! After that, of course, there’s romantic hell to pay, in songs like “Don Juan” and “I Keep Forgettin’.”
Act II is more of a grab bag of songs than the first act, and while many numbers satisfy, the effect of one song after another becomes wearing. And the ending, frankly, isn’t quite the big bang the production needs.
Anchoring the show is the quartet work of Christopher Brasfield, Benjamin Mapp, Jason Veasey and Correy West, young men in the mold of The Coasters or The Drifters, African-American doo-wop ensembles that showcased Leiber & Stoller songs.
For example, the sequence of “Keep on Rollin’ ” and “Searchin’ ” is remarkable for the close harmonies and spot-on moves. Elsewhere they’re joined by Justin Scott Brown, who makes them an even higher-octane quintet.
Their solo work is also stellar. Brasfield finds the soul-baring agony of “I (Who Have Nothing),” and West scores with “Loving You.”
The women — Laura D’Andre, Lulu Fall, Gizel Jimenez, and Jannie Jones — brought down Tuesday’s packed house with “I’m a Woman,” and individually each delivers songs just right for her voice.
I particularly like D’Andre’s treatment of “I Keep Forgettin’ ” and Jones’s front-and-center, ironic, gospel-and-blues infused rendition of “Fools Fall in Love.”
Band on stage
Musical director Benet Braun leads a hot, five-member band upstage. Stephen Terry’s lighting design is heavy on dark and shadowy, a palette inspired less by the nightclub setting (a vague conceit at best) and more, perhaps, by the moodiness of the songs themselves and the evocation of a different time.
Leslie Malitz’s bright costumes contribute to the spirit of each number while giving the actors freedom to execute the demanding choreography.
Three years ago Leslie Uggams came to Cap Rep and tore it up. That same kind of go-for-broke performing — this time by a memorable ensemble — is on view there yet again.