Smokey Joe’s Café, concept by Stephen Helper and Jack Viertel, co-conceived by Otis Sallid, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Directed and choreographed by Bryan Knowlton.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Rehearsal photo of the company; photo: provided
"Put on you’re A-list smile..."
Closing the season at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York is a show with 37 musical numbers, nine singers, 38 costumes (I think - I lost count on this one), a seven piece band and a truckload of musical memories, Smokey Joe’s Café. It features songs by two men whose names have never made it into the memory banks of most of the people who grew up with their songs. They are responsible for at least three Broadway musicals, most notably "Baby" which opened with a trip down the birth-canal, several film scores including "Jailhouse Rock," a French hit, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots," sung by Edith Piaf in her prime and more perennials than you can shake a stick at including "Stand By Me," "On Broadway," "Yakety Yak," "I’m A Woman," "Kansas City," "Charlie Brown," and "Fools Fall in Love," all of which you can hear in this show.
This is a revue without a book. There is almost no dialogue at all and the numbers simply flow, without format and without explanation, one into another. It is also one of the most endearing shows this type due entirely to the material and its interpreters. In its opening number (repeated in part several times), "Neighborhood," the lyric refers to "faded pictures in a scrapbook" and that is pretty much a description of this show on all of its levels. While we can remember some of the songs, and where we might have been and with whom when we first heard them, we really cannot make them match up clearly to our life experiences. They are from the past and the 1950s and 1960s were turgid years when more was happening than we could catalogue in the time allotted.
Jimm Halliday’s costumes help to recreate a sense of the time and the band does its bit too. The singers are young, a mixture of black and white, and they wear the costumes nicely and sing the songs well and shimmy and shake and emulate the period, but for those of us who were there somehow something is missing here. It may just be that the familiar aspects of the show are heightened to an almost Lawrence Welk Show artificiality in the performance style. Would the Lennon Sisters have really performed "I’m A Woman" the way the trio in this show do it? I don’t think so, but there’s something very close to that interpretive style here, just - perhaps - a bit more 2012 than 1962.
Director/choreographer Bryan Knowlton had done a wonderful job getting this show onto the Mac-Haydn stage in the round. Everything he does with his company gives us the distinct impression of another time, but that time is theatrical rather than even representative. We are in the limbo of theatricality and it works, it just doesn’t work all the way along. There are times when our eyes are forced to look at underwear lines in fabrics so very wrong for the 1955-1968 time period. There are times when we listen with our memory banks instead of our ears because our minds take us to favorite recordings instantly when the band plays a familiar intro. This is a hard show to get through when every instinct says "Peggy Lee" or "Elvis Presley" or "The Drifters" or "Ben E. King" instead of "Quinton Menendez," or "Leanne Smith," or "Ashley Kelley."
It is the cast, however, that makes this show so very much more special than it has any right to be. Menendez, Monté Howell, Robert Teasdale and Gabe Belyeu, Kelley, Christina Carlucci, and Smith are all excellent. Jerrial T.Young was a bit less so, his voice on opening night was a bit weak and it didn’t strengthen during the show, his delivery a bit too "period-pat" and his style not quite right in pink and in those pants that should have demanded a different sort of delivery.
Standout moments in this show come with "You’re the Boss" performed with flair by deep-voiced Howell and the sexy Ms. Carlucci, the monologue "I (Who Have Nothing) which wipes away regret and tears in a stirring rendition by Belyeu, "D. W. Washburn" swept up off the floor, again by Belyeu, "Pearl’s a Singer" intoned to a drink by Helm and the wonderful "Ruby, Baby" in fine old quartet style led by Teasdale.
A standout in this company is Ashley Kelley who, when she sings, looks a bit like Loretta Devine and sounds like no one else I can recall. Her enthralling version of "Saved" almost beats her moving and gentle edition of "Fools Fall In Love." Her comic "Hound Dog" is just as about as good as it gets. This woman is an asset to this production like no other. I found myself just waiting for her next number, even a duet or trio, just to watch her work and feel the joy that she clearly brings onto the stage with her.
A momentary delight comes with the pianist singing the haunting "Stay a While," during a full-cast break near the top of the second act. Josh Smith delivers with this tune in both his playing and singing.
Kevin Gleason’s set works very well, the sense of a sixties café or dance bar is just fine, especially as aided by Andrew Gmoser’s perfect lighting for the show.
There’s only one more weekend to see this show, so don’t wait too long for a ticket. Whether it’s a trip down memory lane, like mine, or a journey of discovery where you uncover what made a different generation click, this is a worthwhile experience and one you won’t forget any time soon. Just like so many of the songs. This one is a do-see. See you there!
Smokey Joe’s Café plays through September 16 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre located at 1925 State Road 203 in Chatham, NY. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9898 or go to their website at www.machaydntheatre.org.