'Smokey Joe's Cafe': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
From left: Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, John Edwards, Dwayne Cooper and Max Sangerman in 'Smokey Joe's Cafe'
The joint is rocking.
11/4/2018

The infectious musical revue celebrating the classic songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which originally ran for 2,036 performances on Broadway, returns in a roof-raising revival.

If Smokey Joe's Cafe were a jukebox instead of a jukebox musical, you'd quickly run out of change pumping quarters into it. This show celebrating the timeless songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is so infectiously fun that it's easy to see why the original 1995 Broadway incarnation ran for 2,036 performances, still a record for a musical revue. It's now being given a roof-raising revival at off-Broadway's Stage 42 that provides perfect lighthearted summer entertainment.

Director-choreographer Joshua Bergasse (On the Town) stages the hell out the show, which features more than three dozen songs from the 1950s and '60s, many of them instantly familiar, cherished hits. The production's propulsive, nonstop energy barely leaves room for the audience, let alone the ensemble, to catch their breath. Like the original, this revival features just nine performers, all of whom work their tailbones off. It's not easy, after all, to sing after performing backwards somersaults, as Jelani Remy does in a hip-swiveling rendition of "Jailhouse Rock" that makes Elvis Presley seem like a stiff.

The other excellent performers in the diverse cast are Dwayne Cooper, Emma Degerstedt, John Edwards, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Kyle Taylor Parker, Max Sangerman and Alysha Umphress, and they are no less dynamic. Belying the title of her number "Teach Me How to Shimmy," Degerstedt, clad in a hot pink fringed dress that deserves its own billing, manages to sing while shaking her body in so many directions at once you suspect she must have her chiropractor on speed dial.

There's no narration or particular structure, just one terrific number after another, but the diversity of the musical styles — encompassing rock, pop, soul, R&B, gospel and doo-wop — keeps the proceedings from feeling repetitive. The superb eight-piece band, perched on a movable platform on the side of the stage, occasionally joins in on the action. Sangerman displays his guitar-playing prowess on such numbers as "Ruby Baby," while four of the male performers provide their own percussion on "Keep on Rollin'."

Baby boomers' ears will instantly perk up at the opening notes of such classics as "Young Blood," "Kansas City," "Poison Ivy," "There Goes My Baby," "Treat Her Nice," "Hound Dog," "Love Potion #9" and many others, while the inclusion of several lesser-known songs from the Leiber-Stoller canon infuses freshness into the evening.

Highlights are legion. The one-two punch of "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown" features the performers bounding into the aisles as if the stage couldn't contain them. "On Broadway" pays homage to its original performers, The Drifters, with the four male singers clad in flashy jackets. "Loving You" is performed as classic doo-wop, while "Spanish Harlem" incorporates a flamenco-style dance number into the mix. Umphress infuses "Pearl's a Singer" with a heart-stopping soulfulness, Ortiz delivers "Hound Dog" with arresting swagger, Edwards brings the house down with a powerful "I Who Have Nothing," and Cooper uses his impossibly deep bass voice to amusing effect in several of the ensemble numbers.

There are a few missteps. The musical staging can occasionally get a bit hokey -— I could have done without "Along Came Jones" performed as a vintage Western movie melodrama, for instance — but that's more the exception than the rule.   

Alejo Vietti's costumes and Jeff Croiter's lighting design are first-rate, but the technical standout is Beowulf Boritt's two-level brick-and-wood barroom set, emblazoned with neon beer signs. It's so warm and inviting it makes you wish they'd serve drinks onstage after the show.

Venue: Stage 42, New York
Cast: Dwayne Cooper, Emma Degerstedt, John Edwards, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani Remy, Max Sangerman, Alysha Umphress
Music & lyrics: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
Director-choreographer: Joshua Bergasse
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald
Musical supervisor and new arrangements: Sonny Paladino
Presented by Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steve and Paula Reynolds, Marvin Rosen, Willette Klausner/Jerry Kattell, Sharon Azrieli, Tom and Maren Hood, Riki Kane Larimer, Stephen Byrd & Alia Jones-Harvey