Jackie Burns, Felicia Finley, and Maia Nkenge Wilson
in Smokey Joe's Cafe
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Jackie Burns, Felicia Finley, and Maia Nkenge Wilson
in Smokey Joe's Cafe
(© T. Charles Erickson)
It's hard to deny the feel-good spirit and nostalgic appeal of Smokey Joe's Cafe, the popular revue of hit songs from the 1950s and 1960s by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which is receiving a lively production at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, under the direction of Mark S. Hoebee.

Jonathan Spencer's sparse set frames the stage as a jukebox, with a "High Fidelity 200 Selections" sign at top. The seven-piece band is situated at the back of the stage on a rolling platform. To add a bit more intimacy to the cavernous Paper Mill space, an additional catwalk has been added at the edge of the stage, where the cast often stands and sings directly to the front rows.

After starting out slowly in the comfy group song "Neighborhood," where the principals reminisce about the long-lost good old days, someone pops a quarter into the jukebox and suddenly the stage explodes with color, light and fast movement.

It is evident throughout the evening that Hoebee has made an effort to interpret each of the 39 songs -- which includes such hits as "Stand By Me," "Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog," "On Broadway," and "Love Potion No. 9." -- as a separate story with distinctive characters. Denis Jones' choreography blends well with the rock 'n' roll score and nicely showcases the nine-member cast.

In the comedic song "D.W. Washburn," Maia Nkenge Wilson portrays the title drunk as a bag lady with a shopping cart in tow. Wilson later transforms into a glittery revivalist singer in the gospel number "Saved," which closes the first act. She also stands out as the cast comedian, squeezing her male companion far too tightly in "Dance with Me," and the singer later channels the spirit of Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton in a ferocious rendition of "Hound Dog," which is staged as if she is rejecting a well-intentioned marriage proposal.

In "Searchin'," where Eric LaJuan Summers sings about searching far and wide for his ideal mate, the four other men in the cast dance behind him while holding up a jumbo-sized map. Summers' soft-shoe routine in "Shoppin' for Clothes" is perhaps the show's most charming number.

In "Jailhouse Rock," Jackie Burns is spun on the floor by the rock 'n' rolling, slick-haired Andrew Rannells as if she were a record. The bright-eyed Burns also goes all out in "Teach Me How to Shimmy," offering frenetic movement, head-bobbing, and hip-grinding while on top of a nightclub table. Felicia Finley displays expressive freedom and a confident edge in the sad ballad "Pearl's a Singer," while Carly Hughes, sitting on a black chair and covered with a purple feather boa, is a sultry delight in "Don Juan."