Smokey Joe's Cafe

At Drury Lane Theatre, ”Smokey Joe’s Cafe” reaches new heights.

Justin Keyes, Chris Sams, Tyrone L. Robinson, Will Skrip, and Sean Blake in Smokey Joe's Cafe, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, at Drury Lane Theatre.
Justin Keyes, Chris Sams, Tyrone L. Robinson, Will Skrip, and Sean Blake in Smokey Joe's Cafe, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, at Drury Lane Theatre.
(© Brett Beiner)

In its usual form, Smokey Joe's Cafe is the prototypical musical revue. No book, no plot. Just 39 songs from the impressive catalogue of lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller. With pop hits like "Stand by Me," "Dance With Me," and "There Goes My Baby," Smokey Joe's Cafe is, when sung capably, a perfectly fine night at the theater. In Drury Lane's new production, it has become a whole lot more.

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge has taken a musical revue usually performed abstractly, and given it strong, concrete details. Her Smokey Joe's Cafe takes place in in the late 1950s, in Chicago's historic Maxwell Street Market. Called "the Ellis Island of the Midwest," the Maxwell Street Market is the birthplace of the Chicago Blues, a commercial melting pot that was considered for decades to be the largest open-air market in America. Set designer Kevin Depinet has re-created a segment of the Market in breathtaking detail. Beneath massive elevated train tracks, the stage is packed full of vendors' stalls, fire escapes, and, of course, the titular café.

Since there are no real defined characters or story lines, a show like Smokey Joe's Cafe requires big personalities to carry its songs. While every member of the cast at Drury Lane fits the bill, two of them are simply astonishing. The role of Willie Mae is played by Donica Lynn, whose soaring performances of "Hound Dog," "Saved," and "Fools Fall in Love" are perfectly controlled, but passionate enough to bring you to your feet. And as the neighborhood bum Little Walter, Justin Keyes is a quick-moving marvel. He twitches and goofs through comic numbers like "Treat Me Nice" and "D.W. Washburn," but his sincere Act 2 performance of "I (Who Have Nothing)" brings down the house.

Other highlights from the cast include Tyrone L. Robinson, whose rich bass and excellent comedic timing punctuate novelty songs like "Charlie Brown" and "Yakety Yak," and the brassy Meghan Murphy, who can carry a torch song with the best.

While everyone gives strong solo performances, this cast is even hotter when they all come together. Roberta Duchak's music direction is on point, coaxing out harmonies that are as smooth and soft as warm butter. The cast is backed by an excellent five-piece band, led by conductor and keyboardist Chris Sargent, and featuring some slick solos from saxophonist Jim Gailleretto. The choreography, also by Dodge, is sharp and period-appropriate.

If there is any stumbling in this Smokey Joe's Cafe, it is in the costuming by Sully Ratke, some of which fails to flatter the cast. But even the costumes hit more than they miss. Paul Miller's lighting effectively shifts the mood from romantic to bombastic and back, and the wig and hair design by Claire Moores is just great.

Dodge and her team have reimagined an American stalwart and packed the cast with some of the hottest voices around. This Smokey Joe's Cafe is a gift to Drury Lane audiences, and it's not to be missed.

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Smokey Joe’s Cafe

Closed: October 23, 2016