I like musicals, I do. I’m just not a big ol’ musical theater nerd who can sing every song to every damn musical known to man. But I was especially excited to see Smokey Joe’s Cafe at ArtsCentric performing at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon. I was an ArtsCentric newbie so I had no expectations for the company or their production. I was blown away! A quality, Broadway like production featuring talented actors of color! Be still my heart, I’m in love! If my singing were better I’d be auditioning for them in a heartbeat. Why am I just not hearing about ArtsCentric? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe was a show packed full of the music and lyrics by the incomparable team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Their fun, infectious and heartfelt melodies charmed a generation in the 1950s and 60s. Songs like “Kansas City”, “On Broadway”, “Yakkey Yak”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Love Potion #9”, and “Stand by Me” are just a few of Leiber and Stoller’s timeless hits that were displayed for the audience’s ears in Smokey Joe’s Cafe. You should have recognized at least one these classic songs. If you didn’t you must be living a pretty boring, sheltered music life. These dudes wrote and composed a shit ton of hits! If you take nothing else from Smokey Joe’s Cafe remember this: This show is stacked with song after song after song. Its wall to wall songs! This production was more like a retro concert than a musical. Who needs a silly storyline and boring dialogue? Use the awesome songs by Leiber and Stoller to tell individual stories of the staff at the fictional Smokey Joe’s Cafe as they fall in and out of love with each other.
Speaking of the Cafe, set designer Mr. Jimmy Stubbs transported us into a jazzy cabaret, night club joint with a main thrust stage where the four-piece band played (I’ll get to them in a minute) with tables, chairs and hightops scattered throughout the space. A small center stage in the middle of the floor and a bar along the wall finished out the set. I sat in the front by the main stage because I got there a little late, but I recommend you get there early to grab a table on the floor. The main stage was not the only place where the action took place. The actors made the set come alive. What I mean by that is that they moved throughout it from start to finish. Some of the actors were a male R&B group performing and relaxing after a long set, others were patrons having a drink or wait staff lamenting at the bar. I loved that the action was woven into the audience. Actors were at the bar or sitting at a table when not on stage. Nice touch by Mr. Kevin S. McAllister (director) to integrate the action into the audience. It made the production lively and accessible.
As I alluded to earlier, the four-piece band was kicking! Mr. Cedric D. Lyles (Piano/Conductor), Mr. Kevin Ellis (Drums/Percussion), Mr. Charles Thompson III (Bass) and Mr. Jaime Ibacache (Lead Guitar) had the house jumping and grooving. The music was a toe-tapping, hand clapping, head nodding good time. No wonder the songs were such hits back in the day. They blended R&B, blues, pop and rock ‘n roll together into an infectious mixture. I thought the band was a little loud or the placement of the speakers for the singers mics was in a weird place because at times it was hard to hear the singing. Maybe it was because I was seated at the stage closest to the band. I don’t know but who cares! The music was loud, good, and smooth.
The music was an underscore to the amazing vocals in this production. The whole cast sang their asses off! This was the epitome of an ensemble cast. Well-acted, great characteristics by everyone and you could tell they were having fun singing and dancing to these songs of yesteryear all while supporting each other on stage. The wall to wall songs had me exhausted and exhilarated watching them. I did a few musicals back in college and it is hard to sing, listen for harmonies, keep up energy, dance AND act. But this cast did all of that effortlessly with little to no break. They were always on. The tone, the emotion and the harmonies in the singing were all expertly done. Bravo to music director Mr. Cedric D. Lyles to get this group of singers to gel seamlessly as an ensemble. I’m sure it helped to have kick ass singers. My favorite songs performed were “Trouble”, “W.O.M.A.N”, “You’re the Boss” and “I (Who have nothing)” but they were all equally well performed.
The entire cast were powerhouse singers and performers but I’m going to give a shout out to a few of them here. Ms. Kelli Blackwell had a standout performance as the patron who kept interrupting the performance so she could be on stage. Her voice was powerful, soulful, and full of life and I could listen to her all night. She was so much fun to watch. Yaass Beyonce! Slay! Mr. Bryan Jeffrey was funny and heartwarming as the drunk member of the R&B group. He was equally impressive hitting high notes in the song “I (Who have Nothing)” and dancing drunkenly with this flask when everyone else was partnered off during a love song number. Mr. Derrick Truby Jr. was as a member of the fictional R&B group but I was captivated by his dancing. He was getting it! He went all out in every song (singing and dancing alike) and really looked like he was having fun. Ms. Jessica Bennett, who I saw perform in Iron Crows’ The Wild Party and Stillpointe’s The Last Five Years, sang lovely as always, but she shined in the song “Shimmy” as a dancer. She was moving, shaking, and shimmying and it was both dizzying and exciting to watch.
Choreography by Ms. Ashleigh King was smooth and energetic just like the songs by Leiber and Stoller. The dancing was just the right mix of Broadway, 1950s throwback and silky R&B style. It, along with the music, made me want to dance along during the production. Fortunately I stayed in my seat. I didn’t want to embarrass the actors with my sick moves. Lighting was spot on (Get it? “Spot on” like a spotlight? Yes, I’m corny) and made the church hall feel like a nightclub. My hat goes off to lighting designer Ms. Helen Garcia-Alton. The actors were well lit everywhere they travelled throughout the space. The lighting incorporated cool tones with blue, orange, and red gels. Lastly, the lighting fixtures near the bar were lit, literally and vernacularly. They were beautiful to look at and provided general lighting to the stage area. And they changed color! Costuming was nightclub appropriate and fit the mood of the show. That meant suits and ties, black dresses and bar staff attire. Costume design by Mr. Nicholas Staigerwald kept it simple and tasteful and most importantly easy to dance in. I especially liked the polka dot dresses and basic color palette throughout.
Music is the “soundtrack of our lives” and it’s amazing how Leiber and Stoller’s songs have stood the test of time. They really don’t make songs like they used to. I’m too young to have heard these songs when they were originally released, but I’m old enough to appreciate them now. Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a fun, fresh take on the musical revue. ArtsCentric hit all the “right notes” with his production. That’s me being corny again. I can’t help it!
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO: Go now! Run, don’t walk to see Smokey Joe’s Cafe at ArtsCentric! Have you bought your ticket yet? Why are you still reading this review? Buy your ticket before the show run ends on June 10th! See this show if you love the kind of classic songs that make you want to clap and dance in your seat. Pull up a chair at a table, grab a drink or a plate of hot food sold at intermission (say what?) and enjoy a jammed packed evening full of great music and this side of Broadway performances. (Z)
Now through June 10th at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Running time: Approximately 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission.