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Smokey Joe's Café

Chet Walker directs and choreographs the celebration of Leiber & Stoller with a little help from The Coasters.

Seth Danner and Erin McGrath in Smokey Joe's Café, directed by Chet Walker, at Long Island's Gateway Playhouse.
(© Jeff Bellante)

For the most part, Smokey Joe's Café is nothing new — and that's exactly what people love about it. A tribute to songwriters Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller, the musical is an ode to rock 'n' roll standards of the late '50s and early '60s, offering audiences a delightful throwback with modern theatrical accoutrements. Despite its old but beloved material, the current incarnation at Long Island's Gateway Playhouse is unique in its originality and its stars. Its talented and charismatic cast and creative team make for a distinctive experience as the show enters its 20th anniversary national tour.

Smokey Joe's Café has the distinction of being the longest-running musical revue on Broadway, and it loses little appeal in its regional form. With no plot or logical progression to 40 numbers such as "Jailhouse Rock" and "Love Potion #9", it's easy to take liberties with the choreography, sets, and costumes. Tony nominee Chet Walker (Pippin) directs and choreographs with great aplomb. Though there are few dance numbers until the performers are well into the first act, when they do arrive they pack punch and charisma. In "Shoppin' for Clothes," performers Nik Alexzander, Robert Fowler, Malcolm Armwood, Seth Danner, and Jody Reynard tell a story sans lyrics, using dress dummies as dance partners.

Walker's inventive hand is most evident in diddies such as "Keep On Rollin'," when the aforementioned barbershop quartet sings their way through the chords, simultaneously using suitcases, shopping bags, and their own thighs as instruments. His direction is at its peak with "Poison Ivy," when his performers don white gloves, humorously itching their way through the music. The lyrics to every song come across because of Walker's clear vision of what the numbers are meant to convey, and are, in turn, expertly executed by the players.

Yvette Clark throws just the right amount of sass at Alexzander in Elvis Presley's hit "Hound Dog" and, with a soaring voice that would be right at home on Broadway, Kate McCann envisions what her life might have been in "Pearl's a Singer." Adding to the great talent of the ensemble are headliners (and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers) The Coasters, the group who recorded over 20 Leiber & Stoller songs including "Dance With Me" and "Yakety Yak." Their cohesive voices and the playfulness in their simplistic snaps add just the right vibe to the production. Eddie Whitfield's bass is especially poignant in "Charlie Brown."

Martin T. Lopez's costumes mix contemporary fashion with mod-ish '50s and '60s frocks in subtle, effective style. The layers of fringe on the hot-pink flapper dress in "Teach Me How to Shimmy" add so much excitement to the frenetic number that the costume is almost its own character. Steve Paladie's set is simple and serviceable in its execution, with brightly lit art-deco squares designed to match the color scheme of any given number.

Smokey Joe's Café ends much like it began, on a sweetly soft note with little pomp and even more sentimentality. It is here that Walker seems to lose his edge. In what could potentially have created a huge finale, there's swaying rather than the fever-pitch level of excitement that harkens back to the good old days of rock 'n' roll. But overall, this Smokey Joe's Café is still worthy of everyone's shimmying.

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