How enthusiastically audiences respond to “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”– the new musical revue celebrating the rock ‘n’ roll songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller — depends largely on what they demand of a theatrical experience. Those satisfied with a talented cast performing their guts out to 40 terrific songs will be thrilled. Others, who demand even a shred of structure or a point of view, will wonder why they didn’t just buy a Phil Spector or Elvis Presley CD box set and save the price of parking. The guess here is that the latter group will win out, which does not bode well for “Smokey Joe’s” Broadway aspirations.
Maybe the problem with this show comes from its advertising tag line: “Music that makes you want to dance.” That it does, although ushers will undoubtedly rush you back to your seat if you attempt to do that in the Doolittle’s aisles.
Staging this show in a legitimate theater instead of a club means that the audience simply sits and watches; they would be forgiven for demanding more than the efficient yet predictable stagings offered.
On the surface, a plot would seem unnecessary. The ’50s and ’60s hits by Leiber and Stoller were often self-contained ministories, whether sketching the big city yearnings of “Kansas City,” the celebrity hopes of “On Broadway” or the high school mischief of “Charlie Brown.”
Writing hits for the Coasters, the Drifters, Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley, among many others, Leiber and Stoller captured the stories and emotions of a generation of teenagers in perfect two-minute time capsules. They wouldn’t need the kind of framework given to, say, Stephen Sondheim’s recent revue “Putting it Together.”
But the songwriters, director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Joey McKneely don’t do enough packaging of the material, don’t go far enough taking songs first heard on transistor radios and re-imagining them for the stage.
There are a couple of halfhearted attempts at structure. The show opens and closes with the 1974 obscurity “Neighborhood,” which suggests this will be a scrapbook of memories.
The second act begins in the eponymous cafe, and features a battle of the sexes — the men sing the stripper testimonial “Little Egypt,” answered by the proto-feminist “I’m a Woman” from the opposite sex. But both hints of framework are quickly abandoned.
Not much more effort is made in the musical staging. Take a moment and imagine how you would stage a song like “Poison Ivy”– with the priceless lyrics “You’re gonna need an ocean/of calamine lotion/she’s gonna do you in/the minute she gets under your skin”– if you were responsible for this show. Got it in mind? Yeah, well, that’s exactly how it’s offered here.
So it’s left to the cast and the inherent appeal of the songs to carry the evening. As a result, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” comes off as, in effect, a live version of the tribute albums that are clogging shelves at music stores this holiday season. It mostly serves to recharge the memory of the songwriters, who have kept a low profile over the last 15 years or so, and a number of the acts they made famous.
Elvis hardly needs the boost, but this show could restore interest in Leiber and Stoller’s pet group, the Coasters, an L.A.-based vocal group best known for their clownish delivery of novelty songs, as well as the right-coast-based Drifters.
Many of the new show’s highlights come from a quartet of singers — Ken Ard, Adrian Bailey, Victor Trent Cook and Frederick B. Owens — who essentially re-create those two groups.
The diminutive, facially expressive Cook uses his elastic voice and inherent charm on the Coasters’ “Searchin’,” while Bailey, the strongest singer in the company, shines in the show-stopping “On Broadway,” a hit for the Drifters. Bailey also stands out in a simple, stripped down interpretation of the king’s “Love Me.”
In general, the men fare better than the women, whose numbers seem more like afterthoughts. It’s notable that the enormously talented DeLee Lively gets one of her best moments acting out the title request in “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” dancing in a fringed dress but making not a sound. The rest of the cast turn in fine, but by no means remarkable, performances.
Much the same can be said for the production values. The set consists mostly of movable panels — which together show a stylized dashboard of a ’50s sedan.
A miscue is the use of headset microphones that deliver great sound, but give the cast the look of one of those MCI Friends and Family ads, with the operators breaking out into song.
On the other hand, that at least is the suggestion of a narrative structure, which is otherwise missing.