If you come to Smokey Joe’s Café expecting lavish sets or lots of vignettes, you might be disappointed, as the 39 pop standards featured are done in true musical-revue style — with no spoken dialogue and nary a pomp or circumstance. However, if you are looking for a spectacular display of vocals on some of the most memorable songs of the ’50s and ’60s, expect to be pleased. Arena Stage presents a version that rivals all the enjoyment and fun of the original Broadway production, which ran five years and broke records for a musical revue in the process.
In this production, nine gifted singers perform a collection of rock–and-roll and rhythm-and-blues songs written by the legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Even if those names are unfamiliar to you, it’s a good bet you’ve heard at least a few of their most known tunes, which were made famous by performers like Elvis, The Drifters, and Peggy Lee, among others.
Tony winner Levi Kreis channels his Tony award-winning performance as Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet into a positively electrifying performance of Elvis’ "Jailhouse Rock," commandeering the piano for an unforgettable solo and playing to the crowd in true rock-star fashion. Kreis is also sensational on "I Keep Forgettin’." He expertly leads the ensemble with an emotionally charged "Stand By Me."
The male quartet of Jay Adriel, Austin Colby, Michael J. Mainwaring, and Stephawn P. Stephens magnificently re-creates the sound of The Coasters, who boasted 24 Leiber and Stoller chart hits, with "Young Blood" and "Searchin." During one of the rare songs utilizing props, the same foursome engages in clever choreography involving hats and jackets on a welcoming version of "Shoppin’ for Clothes." Mainwaring collects some laughs and is one of the most personable in the cast. With a deep voice that could rival the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, Stephens’ songs show a great deal of charisma. He is old-school debonair on his duet "Love Me/Don’t" with Nova Payton. She takes lead on "Hound Dog" in a fresh and sultry version of the King’s classic.
It is hard to keep eyes off of dance captain Ashley Blair Fitzgerald whenever she’s on stage as her moves are hypnotizing, especially when she answers Colby’s cry of "Teach Me How to Shimmy" with an expert lesson. Fitzgerald also delivers a wonderful duet on "Trouble," teaming up with Kara-Tameika Watkins, who herself kills with the power anthem "I’m a Woman" and shines with solo efforts "Pearl’s a Singer," "Some Cats Know," and "Neighborhood."
The one downside to Arena’s version is that they chose to stage it in its in-the-round Fichandler Stage. As a result, all of the action — in this case the dancing — takes place on the peripherals of the stage’s edge, with the band in a rising pit in the middle. And while the seven-musician band led by Rick Fox doesn’t miss a note, their presence in the middle of the stage is distracting at times and makes you fear for the performers’ safety during some of the more heavily choreographed numbers. Luckily, director Randy Johnson, who knows a thing or two about music having directed last year’s One Night With Janis Joplin, handles the limited space issues estimably.
Ilona Somogyi’s costumes are colorful, paying respect to the fashions of the time, making the quick changes by the cast look effortless.
All in all, Smokey Joe’s Café provides a great listen to the music of the past and brings back memories of a time when you could turn on the radio and hear great harmonies and fun, worthy lyrics. It is like watching a jukebox come to life.