Encore Theatre's 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' is inviting
Photo by Joyce Obradovich
Well, I’m not so sure about that. But if you simply take “Smokey Joe’s” for what it is—an affectionate look back at the eclectic pop catalog of songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller—you’ll probably have a pretty good time, anyway.
Cullen skillfully sets up fun situations within and between several numbers, often through choreography (watch the 4 men’s heads swivel wildly while pretending to watch the stripper in “Little Egypt,” for example).
And some “characters” are drawn in broad strokes early on: Fatima Poggi is the temptress; Amy Smidebush is an assertive, self-assured, big woman that men find intimidating; Sebastian Gerstner is the smiling, slick ladies’ man always looking for a good time; etc. These personalities help fill out the show a bit, but with about 40 songs packed in to 2 hours, the main focus, of course, is the music itself.
Early in the show on opening night, music director Cheryl Van Duzen’s four piece orchestra overwhelmed the soloists, but the balance improved as the show progressed. Similarly, a few rough notes emerged from musicians and actors alike until the production found its footing, a few numbers into the score.
The highlights of the first act were the men’s “Keep on Rollin’” and “Searchin’,” featuring a winningly fun solo by Brian E. Buckner; Poggi’s saucy “Don Juan”; and Smidebush’s rousing closer “Saved.” In the second act, Thalia Schramm brought out the quiet, sad beauty of “Pearl’s a Singer”; Schramm, Poggi, and Smidebush’s fierce take on “I’m a Woman” nearly brought down the house; Poggi’s “Some Cats Know” smoldered; Smidebush’s torch song reprise of “Fools Fall in Love” was a showstopper; and Steve DeBruyne’s “Jailhouse Rock,” along with his stirring take on the show’s “Stand By Me” finale, made for memorable, sing- or clap-along moments.
Generally, Cullen’s choreography makes good use of Leo Babcock’s dual, curved staircase set design, thus making the show much more visually dynamic than it might otherwise be.
Not surprisingly, the show features a ton of dancing, and while the cast mostly executes the choreography well (see “Saved”), there were also moments on opening night when the cast visibly strained through a particularly challenging sequence (see “On Broadway”).
Costume designer Sharon Larkey Urick had a very full plate, given how many costume changes happen in the production. Appropriately, the clothes often merely suggest, rather than mimic, the ‘50s, and the colors and styles work within each of the numbers without distracting - with the exception of Cara Manor’s fringe mini-dress in “Teach Me How to Shimmy.” (The use of fringe, for this style of dance, seems wholly logical; the outfit itself does not.)
Strangely, this show focused on pop hits of the ‘50s doesn’t make you necessarily nostalgic for that era. But it does give you a chance to appreciate Leiber and Stoller’s distinctive lyrics, as well as their uncanny gift for creating musical hooks.
And if you’re like the folks seated around me on opening night, you’ll find yourself regularly singing along, too.
"Smokey Joe's Cafe" continues through Feb. 26. For more information, see the preview article.