Why are these people always smiling? Sure, many of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s songs –“Love Potion #9, “”Charlie Brown,””Yakety Yak”– are cute rock novelties. But some tap a deeper, bluesier vein, though you’d hardly know it from “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” an interminably upbeat nightclub revue being passed off as a Broadway musical. A smile is its umbrella.
While “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is the product of some of Broadway’s most accomplished practitioners, it’s junk unworthy of their talents and at best a cynical exercise in product manufacturing. A slick songfest put across by some attractive singers, it makes Broadway look like little more than a launching pad for what will undoubtedly be a lucrative road show. It also provides several numbers that will surely look good on the Tony telecast in June, which may ultimately be the most important service “Smokey Joe” renders the industry.
The show may do well with the tourist crowd, but it’s likely to replicate the underwhelming box office performance three years ago of the equally chipper “Five Guys Named Moe” rather than strike the gold of “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” in 1978.
Leiber and Stoller extended the life of Tin Pan Alley into the rock era, their songs — anecdotes with great hooks — blenderizing the blues for the exploding AM radio market. When Elvis Presley appropriated “Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thornton, the young team didn’t exactly protest; though the King gender-switched the song and rendered it incoherent, he gave them their first hit.
Leiber and Stoller may well have lain some of the groundwork for the rock that rolled thereafter, but their songs are weightless compared to the work of legendary songwriting teams like Lennon and McCartney or Motown’s Holland/Dozier/Holland, to cite just two examples.
Here are nine singers — five men, four women — on a Heidi Landesman set best described as rock limbo: a red freeform fire escape framed by several false prosceniums and sliding panels, all gauzily decorated with music trademarks from the ’50s and ’60s — Coasters records, Elvis, etc.
For two hours — including a 25 minute intermission more customary at opera houses — the singers are shuffled in differing configurations to deliver 39 songs plus a couple of reprises. The show often looks like those TV spots for golden oldies radio stations, where cab drivers and secretaries lipsynch Carole King and Temptations songs, a consequence in part of the disembodied voices resulting from the miking.
Indeed, the opening ensemble number, “Neighborhood,” is completely disconcerting because it’s impossible to tell who’s singing and one finds oneself frantically searching to see whose lips are moving at a given phrase.
The news isn’t completely bad. All of the cast members are good, and three are outstanding: B. J. Crosby, who brings down the house with Aretha-inspired beltings of “Hound Dog” and “Fools Fall in Love” (though she also has to endure a let’s-make-fun-of-the-fat-girl number early on); Pattie Darcy Jones, who puts “Pearl’s a Singer” across with great feeling and jazzy nuance; and Victor Trent Cook, whose amazing falsetto launches “I (Who Have Nothing)” into the stratosphere and is literally the show’s high point.
DeLee Lively is just that in a sexy “Teach Me How to Shimmy” (but why don’t the guys get all hot ‘n’ bothered?), and the male quartet harmonizing gorgeously in “Keep on Rollin’ ” really does recall the Coasters. But “On Broadway,” which should be a soulful anthem, is botched on the upbeat, and too many of the other songs get the gladhand treatment, too.
Joey McNeely contributes some appealing, if generic, dance breaks, but if the extraordinary gifts of director Jerry Zaks are in evidence anywhere here, they went by me. William Ivey Long has dressed the men as sexily as the women, and Timothy Hunter’s lighting is fine. Note to musicians’ Local 802: Anyone who thinks a synthesizer can be mistaken for a violin should sit in on “Spanish Harlem” before the next negotiation.
At the Supper Club or Rainbow & Stars, “Smokey Joe’s” might be a good chaser to a couple of drinks. At the beautifully refurbished Virginia, it’s in the wrong, well, neighborhood.