Words and Music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Directed and Choreographed by Chet Walker
Produced by Nederlander of Bethesda, LLC for the Bethesda Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Knowing what to expect can be key to enjoying a night at the theatre. If you want to enjoy an agreeable oldies revue smoothly sung by a talented ensemble, then you could do worse than drop in to Smokey Joe’s Café at the Bethesda Theatre. On the other hand, if live musical theatre is a rare treat because of a busy schedule and/or limited budget, you may find a production that rarely rises above pleasant does not fulfill your highest expectations.
Smokey Joe’s Café is based upon over three dozen songs written by the legendary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Artists such as Elvis Pressley (“Hound Dog,” Jailhouse Rock”), the Coasters (“Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy,” “Charlie Brown”), and Ben E. King (“Stand By Me,” “There Goes My Baby”) are just a few of the artists who drank from their well of talent. If you enjoyed these songs when originally released (as some in the audience evidently did) or you became fans through oldies’ radio, then you can expect a good time.
Smokey Joe’s Café played on Broadway for nearly five years starting in March of 1995. It helped popularize the concept of the jukebox musical. Unlike many of its successors, the show is free of any story, framing device, or other technique meant to make the evening seem like more than a musical revue. Again, if you know what to expect, your enjoyment level is likely to rise.
One thing you would expect from a former Broadway show playing at this fine venue is a high level of professionalism. That expectation is met in important ways (talent, choreography, and vocal harmonies) although lacking in some of the technical elements.
A cast of nine (five men and four women) performs songs in mixed configurations ranging from solos to full company numbers. While the cast has varying talents, they sing with enthusiasm and project their joy to the audience. Few of the individual performances stand out (an exception being a witty and well-staged version of “Hound Dog”), however, and many of the songs blend together with a smooth sameness that undercuts their distinctive joys.
Many of the show’s highlights involve group numbers. The men in particular have a good on-stage rapport and their voices blend nicely in numbers such as “On Broadway,” Searchin’,” and “Love Potion No. 9.” The choreography is top-flight and some of the cast members (especially Emilee Dupré) really shine in their dance opportunities.
The talented cast, in fact, would probably be even more entertaining in a smaller and simpler production. The set (a couple of two-story metal frames with staircases and a number of large sliding panels) either does not add much or can occasionally detract from the show. The same can be said for the blurry nostalgia pictures projected on the panels. While some of the nice evening clothes complement the cast, the more glittery pieces (especially in the “Jailhouse Rock” number) can come across more tacky than spectacular.
The five-piece band performs in a professional manner. The music director leads them through authentic arrangements that conjure up the memories of those songs in their original glories.
One disappointing aspect of the evening involved the sound elements. At times the mix left the performers with the dilemma of either having the lyrics sound muddled or oversinging their songs at the risk of going sharp.
Overall, this is a competent but not overwhelming production. Polite applause normally follows each number, but the responses are rarely heartfelt. It is the kind of show where the audience will clap along when invited to by the cast, but the clapping never breaks out spontaneously. In short, the nostalgia set can have a nice time, but there is never any danger of dancing in the aisles. Maybe in a club setting these classic Lieber-Stoller numbers could get the joint jumping, but this production drains some of the natural energy from their songbook.
[Note: At the production attended by this reviewer local favorite Kara-Tameika Watkins appeared in place of regular Aurelia Williams and gave a fine performance.]
Running Time: 2:05 (with one intermission)
Where: Bethesda Theatre, 7719 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda, MD
When: Wednesdays through Sundays through May 11, 2008
Contact Info: Tickets can be purchased through the box office [301-657-STAR (7827)] or on-line through Ticketmaster