The creators of classics such as “Hound Dog” and “Stand By Me,” songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are veritable granddaddies of rock ‘n’ roll, having crafted dozens of chart-busting hits for The Coasters, The Drifters, and Elvis Presley, among other pop legends, during the 1950s-60s.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller, a slick entertainment packaged from nearly 40 of the team’s compositions, bowed on Broadway in 1995 and grabbed customers for nearly five years. The show remains to this day the longest running musical revue in Broadway history.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe opened again for business tonight at Stage 42, a 499-seat Off Broadway house situated on Theatre Row that was formerly known as the Little Shubert. It is essentially the same jukebox show as its earlier incarnation—there is no storyline here, but instead a feast of nostalgic ear-candy that is expertly dished out by a talented nine-member company.
Jack Viertel, who devised the original with Stephen Helper and Otis Sallid, collaborates this time with Joshua Bergasse, the director-choreographer, and Sonny Paladino, its music supervisor who devised new arrangements for seven musicians. Trimming back the proceedings to a swift, intermission-free 90 minutes, they have reworked the winning song stack somewhat, but not appreciably so.
They also, with set designer Beowulf Boritt, have put on the stage an actual Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Where the Broadway environs involved a series of translucent panels and an onstage orchestra, this production presents a cheerful tavern setting. Its brick walls, old time-y looking bar and wrought iron trimmings are accented by numerous neon signs advertising different beers. Curiously, if quaintly, the upstage recesses of the set are stacked with dozens of vintage radio consoles from the 1920s-30s-40s. They appear to be rather out of place, frankly, since the music of Leiber and Stoller is not at all representative of those decades.
With no story and scarcely a word spoken, the show is all about the songs, which are staged by Bergasse as individual episodes or even stories. A humorous spin through “Dance With Me,” for instance, sees Dionne D. Figgins, who sings the number, trying to dance with each of the men, who in turn prove shy or clumsy or too energetic, until she finally teams with the right guy. The novelty ditty “Along Came Jones” is rendered cartoon style, complete with costume bits.
The strategic positioning and pacing of these three dozen numbers is astute: The show gets off to a friendly, easygoing start with “Neighborhood” and then song by song gradually increases in intensity to reach a midway crest of excitement with “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown,” then a blazing “Dueling Pianos” instrumental by the band, and finally “On Broadway.” That evergreen is keenly delivered by Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Jelani Remy, whose smooth moves and close harmonies provide the production’s strong r & b musical backbone.
Not to say that they and the others are not individual stand-outs. Dionne D. Figgins specializes in vampy portrayals and later whirls through a romantic dance as the rose of “Spanish Harlem.” Emma Degerstedt offers baby doll-type attitudes and shakes her fringed torso to “Teach Me How to Shimmy.” Nicole Vanessa Ortiz focuses a flashing smile and bright, laser-like vocals on a disdainful “Hound Dog” and a thrilling “Saved.” Alysha Umphress dedicates her pyrotechnical pipes to a honky-tonk “Trouble” and a rueful “Pearl’s a Singer.” Together, the ladies dish up a raucous “I’m a Woman” that gets the crowd cheering for more.
The gents enjoy their breakouts, too. Max Sangerman smolders with blue-eyed soulfulness on “Loving You.” John Edwards socks over a dramatic “I Who Have Nothing.” Jelani Remy knocks out a lusty “Jailhouse Rock” capped by a cartwheel. Kyle Taylor Parker contributes a comical presence throughout and adeptly reveals “Love Potion #9.” Dwayne Cooper’s burnished bass voice drives the Coasters-style ensemble numbers, most notably that “On Broadway” done in red jackets and delivered with synchronized ease.
Vividly lit in bright, varied colors by Jeff Croiter, these highly energetic performances are backstopped by a bang-up band and sharply shaped by Bergasse’s choreography. The show unquestionably offers an entertaining romp through old-school rock ‘n’ roll.
Yet one question remains: Who is the audience for this event? The people who grew up with these songs are not getting out so much anymore to the theater. The later Boomers tend to be more about rock than roll in their musical preferences and as for the generations after that, well, one wonders whether these tunes mean much of anything to them. Still, “Stand By Me” was a highlight of the latest royal wedding, so perhaps Smokey Joe’s Cafe will prove to be a hit all over again.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe opened July 22, 2018, at Stage 42. Tickets and information: smokeyjoescafemusical.com