Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Beverly Creasey

Rockin' "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

by Beverly Creasey

If you're over forty and under sixty, you probably know who Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller are. For the rest of you, they are the phenomenal songwriters whose early rock'n'roll gems shaped the character of a generation. We were amused by their cheeky sexual innuendo --- remember "Young Blood...Got to get you out of my mind"? --- and emboldened by their irreverent humor --- remember "Charlie Brown, He's a clown... Why's always pickin' on me?" --- and touched by the sheer elegance of ballads like "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand By Me."

"Smokey Joe's Cafe" celebrates the seminal Lieber & Stoller songs of the '50s and '60s, but it's not a concert, any more than "Ain't Misbehavin'" was a concert of Fats Waller's hits. Each song in this new show is staged to tell a story. There are gorgeous dances (Jerry Zaks directed; Lisa Dawn Cave choreographed and co-directed) and wonderful shtick as inventive as the music.

Novelty songs which always bring a smile when you hear them on the oldies stations now have new life as comic vehicles for a sensational cast. Robert Mack infuses "Searchin'... Gonna find her" with top notch shenanigans staged by Joey McKneely, as T. C. Rogers, Chris Morgan and John Woodward III push, pull, and carry him in his comic quest for the love of his life. Francine Finley brings down the house in several numbers, especially "Hound Dog".

They do all of Elvis' big Lieber & Stoller hits, like "Hound Dog" and "Jail House Rock" but the great surprise and pleasure in "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is the light they shine on lesser known beauties, like "Don Juan" which is turned into a sexy torch-song by Venise Eldridge, "Pearl's A Singer" belted out by Judith Rose, and "Saved" which becomes a glorious, frenzied rock'n'roll revival meeting.

If you were around in the heyday of rock, you'll have the time of your life at Smokey Joe's. I was disappointed by "Five Guys Named Moe" which attempted to do for Louis Jordan what "Ain't Misbehavin'" did for Fats Waller, but I wasn't disappointed with "Smokey Joe's Cafe". Michael Branson's band rocks and the dynamic cast delivers. They don't write songs like this anymore.
I know, you're thinking "Yackety Yak"; well, "Don't talk back!"

"Smokey Joe's Cafe" (till 3 January)
265 Tremont Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide