A talented nine-member ensemble put on an energetic revival of the 1995 Broadway revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” an impressive distillation of the monumental output of tunesmiths Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Helmer-choreographer Jeffrey Polk instills compelling veracity into 38 Leiber and Stoller songs that were originally crafted for a diverse array of talents, from ’50s R&B icons such as Big Mama Thornton, the Drifters and the Coasters to figures such as Elvis Presley, Ben E. King, Peggy Lee, LaVern Baker and Aretha Franklin.
Making great use of El Portal Theater’s ample stage area, the production eschews dialogue; all the emphasis is on the tunes, driven by an adroit nine-piece onstage band led by music director-pianist Darryl Archibald.
Polk’s first-act staging sets up the Leiber-Stoller fare in a concert setting highlighted by zesty four-part R&B renderings by Niles Rivers, T.C. Carson, Maceo Oliver and John Woodward III on “Keep on Rollin’,” “Searchin’,” “Poison Ivy” and the iconic “On Broadway.” Also notable are the trio of Sharon Catherine Blanks, Jackie Seiden and Robert Torti, who swing their way through an upbeat “Kansas City.”
The solo fare is highlighted by Dionne Figgin’s sinewy and sensuous journey through the ultra-materialistic “Don Juan,” making captivating use of a near-stage-length boa. Kudos also to the soulful rendering of “Falling” by DeLee Lively (Tony nominated for her perf in the 1994 original cast).
The concert setting does not serve all the tunes equally. Though vocally impressive, two stand-alone solo vehicles, Blanks’ turn on “Fools Fall in Love” and Seiden’s “I Keep Forgettin’,” come off as undernourished.
The second act, built around a neon lit Smokey Joe’s Cafe setting, is decidedly more relaxed and even more rewarding. The full company pays cursory but adequate homage to the R&B classics “Yakety Yak” (featuring the sax work of Mike Benedict), “Charlie Brown” and “Stay a While.”
Torti’s “Teach Me How to Shimmy” is highlighted by Lively’s eye-popping, torso-rending “shimmy girl” routine that was a hit of the Broadway production. Torti later instills more “Grease” than Elvis into an energetic “Jailhouse Rock” and joins the foursome of Carson, Oliver, Rivers and Woodard in a comically rewarding survey of “Little Egypt,” “There Goes My Baby” and “Love Potion No. 9.”
A second-act highlight is Blanks’ ragingly indicting “Hound Dog.” And Polk is to be lauded for his compelling, introspective pas de deux staging of “Spanish Harlem,” sung by Oliver and danced by Oliver and Figgins.