note: entire contents copyright 2000 By Alan W. Petrucelli
It would be a special night even if Gladys Knight was no where in sight. That's the kind of smokin' musical "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is. They say the neon lights are night on Broadway, but these days (and nights and Knight) the voltage is sizzling in Boston, especially at The Wang Center, where "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is playing.
Did I say playing?
Saying that [begin ital] Smokey Joe's Cafe [end ital] is simply "playing" is like saying that Shirley Bassey is just some singer. Smokey Joe's Cafe rocks and rolls and knocks the roof off the Wang as it celebrates the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. No wonder the crowd, at least on opening night, cheered. And cheered. And cheered some more.
Do just who are Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller? And why would you want to spend between $35 and $65 to hear their music? You've already heard --- and sung along to -- their music while dancing at the prom, necking at the drive-in, cruising the highway, sipping sodas at the malt shoppe. It's music that reared Baby Boomers, a soundtrack to life and love and loss and heartache and hurt ... a virtual audio encyclopedia of pop classics. "Hound Dog." "Yakety Yak." "On Broadway." "Spanish Harlem." "Jailhouse Rock." "There Goes My Baby." "Love Potion No. 9." "Charlie Brown."
"The Sound of Music"this ain't. There's absolutely no plot. The set is simple but unmemorable. The costumes are nothing you haven't seen before (even Knight's duds seem so lackluster considering she is the "name" here, billed, surprisingly, in a box [begin ital] under [end ital] the title). And the fine folk behind this production have never heard the word "denouement." [begin ital] The Sounds of Music [end ital] it most certainly is. The show opens with the Knight and crew promising an evening of nostalgia, of memories, of taking just one more look at those faded scrapbook photos.
What makes the show so entertaining is that the cast --- guys and gals who keep the joint jumpin' --- are truly terrific performers. Including Gladys. It's as simple as that. They have voices that stir the soul, raise the roof and often seem capable of shattering eardrums if not the sound barrier. And some of the men are capable of shaking their booties and bending so far over that I'd bet (almost) all my Gladys Knight and Pips Cds that their hips (and other body parts) are made of rubber. Knight is only sounding better with age: At 55, she boasts a voice so rich it can best be described as smoky; her take on "I (Who Have Nothing)" would make even Bassey shake her head in awe.
What keeps the short show (it's about two hours, including intermission) from becoming monotonous is that the songs are not simply sung --- they are embraced and brought to life. Sometimes they are riddled with a delicious sense of sensuality and sexuality; sometimes they are riddled with pain and ache and fear and acceptance that life will go on. Director Jerry Zaks simple lets the cast rip, knowing that the spirit of the music --- and the performers who perform it --- is contagious.
Serve them up, Joe!
"Smokey Joe's Cafe" will be performed tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets range in price from $35 to $65. For more information, call (800) 447-7400.