On the stupendous Smokey’s Joe’s Café set, designer Beowulf Boritt has placed—along with neon Coors, Pabst’s and Beck’s signs—many radio consoles. He hasn’t included, unless I missed it, a single jukebox.
So you can’t really call the hot and welcome Smokey Joe’s Cafe a jukebox revue. You’d have to term the production a Top-40 revue. And you’d have to say the show, at Stage 42, is so close to perfect that any caviling would instantly brand you a hopeless stick-in-the-mud.
First-rate, top-drawer, grade-A in every department, the first department you’d be obliged to praise with loud huzzahs are the songs. They’re from well-sung (pun intended) songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who could be said to have ruled the chart-topping air waves and singles sales statistics in the 1950’s and forward—at least until the Beatles and other singer-songwriters wrested charge in the 1960s.
The list of Leiber-Stoller hits—the former the lyricist, the latter the composer—is so long a person would need a greatly extended arm to write that list along it. And it wasn’t just that they understood burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll dynamics. They combined that with the kind of wordsmithing wit shown them by the likes of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and E. Y. Harburg.
Leiber’s “yakety yak, don’t talk back” phrase is just one of the worm-their-way-into-your-ear dictates that caught the teenage-forever zeitgeist of the time as it combined with the humor and melodic style of past times. And in chart-regular performers like Elvis Presley and the Coasters, who hankered for Leiber-Stoller ditties, the team had ideally placed purveyors.
Listening to their huge catalog of ASCAP royalty snares, you hear something you may not with other songwriters: the fun they had to have been having as they worked. It may be impossible not to hear them laughing their way through the creation of, for prime examples, “Hound Dog,” “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock.” And those hip items are only three of the three-dozen L-S numbers reprised here.
Incidentally, although the pair worked almost exclusively together, they would occasionally collaborate with others. Ben E. King is credited with them for both “Stand By Me” and “There Goes My Baby”—Ben E. King being another reliable hit maker in those days. The highly histrionic “I (Who Have Nothing)” was co-written with Giulio Rapetti and Labati Donida. Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann were the “On Broadway” collaborators.
But of course, songs are meant to be sung and sometimes danced and acted to. And the singing, dancing, acting exhibited here rates extremely high on the Wow-o-Meter. Individually the cast members are hot as cayenne pepper. As an ensemble, they’re hot as the August sun.
Alphabetically, Dwayne Cooper, Emma Degerstedt, John Edwards, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani Remy, Max Sangerman and Alysha Umphress ignite like firecrackers whether soloing or working as part of sometimes Coasters-like groups, duos, trios, or full cast combos.
Remy’s “Jailhouse Rock” with its gymnastic turns raises the roof. Degerstedt shimmying in “Teach Me How to Shimmy” while wearing interlocking fire-alarm-red fringe raises the roof again. That assailed roof is raised repeatedly by each of the cast members—certainly by Umphress with her melismatics on “Trouble,” Figgins and Remy on a torrid “Spanish Harlem,” Edwards with the impassioned “I (Who Have Nothing),” Nicole on a sizzling “Fools Fall in Love” and its stinging “shake the hand of a brand-new fool” request, and Sangerman on the slow-to-fast “Loving You.” And don’t think Cooper or Parker is any less effective when roof raising is occurring.
Joshua Bergasse (On the Town) is the director-choreographer charged with the non-stop entertaining. Perhaps not yet getting the wide-spread attention he’s earned for his skills, Bergasse shakes out a cornucopia of surprises throughout as he dispatches the nine performers across Boritt’s two-level set with one spiral staircase and in Alejo Vietti’s shocking-color costumes. He’s beautifully coordinated Jeff Croiter’s lighting, Peter Fitzgerald’s sound and the musical orchestrations and arrangements of Sonny Paladino, Steve Margoshes, Chapman Roberts, Louis St. Louis, John Miller and Matt Oestreicher.
Of all the loved Leiber-Stoller songs that fans want to hear, one is left out, the one Peggy Lee popularized in her sultry, smoky manner: “Is That All There Is?” It happens to represent the thought that must be going through the minds of ticket-buyers’ when the 90-minute extravaganza reaches its up-up-upbeat conclusion and the audience is still ready for more. Is that all there is? Not a bad feeling—and not one felt at too many other new musical productions on offer around town these otherwise desert-parched days.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe opened July 22, 2018, at Stage 42. Tickets and information: smokeyjoescafemusical.com