Brooke Aston, Matthew Chappell, and Julie Evins in Smokey Joe’s Café. Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.
Last night I realized that I need to re-evaluate my definition of musical theater. Obviously, this genre must have singing and entertainment value; and dancing is always a plus. But what about a plot? Is a storyline that important to a musical? What if there was a common theme between songs but dialogue, conflict-resolution and even characters were taken out of the picture? I’m not talking about some cutting-edge post-modern off-off-Broadway production, of course. I’m talking about Smokey Joe’s Café at Derby Dinner Playhouse.
Using the great, timeless rock and roll music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Lee Buckholz has staged a musical that kept his audience’s toes tapping from start to finish. Producing Artistic Director Bekki Jo Schneider said in her curtain speech that this is a production about “the neighborhoods of the past.” This is clearly illustrated through this series of musical vignettes illustrating a simpler time – before social media and cell phones. The music and the staging produce a world that is all about finding love, living in the “neighborhood” and big dreams about success.
The first act highlights the neighborhood motif while the second act melts into a café setting. With each song, the performers portray the characters within the songs in a concert-meets-musical-theatre style. Highlighted performances that come to mind are Julie Evins’ adorable rendition of “Falling,” as well as her sultry performance of “Trouble” with Brooke Aston. Willie Illeana Kirven belted with dynamic force at the end of Act One with “Saved.” Stellar performances were given by the men (Matthew Chappell, Lamont O’Neal, Alonzo Richmond, Christian Bradford and Lem Jackson) in “Dance with Me,” “Keep on Rolling” and especially “On Broadway.” Their dancing, harmonies and chemistry was on the level of the music groups of the ’50s and ’60s that Leiber and Stoller wrote for.
The second act delivered some great numbers as well with “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” “You’re the Boss” and “Loving You.” The stand-out performance after intermission belonged to Sarah Oster’s “Pearl’s a Singer,” distinguished by her confidence and diva presence. Towards the end of the show, I began to question some directorial choices. I wondered why “Charlie Brown” didn’t incorporate the dance of the same name as it was originality written. In songs like “Yakkity Yak,” the underwhelming choreography took away from an otherwise great sounding number. I felt a bit snubbed during “I (Who Have Nothing),” an amazing song sung by Matthew Chappell. Derby Dinner’s stage is in the round, a venue that sometimes works in its favor and other times…not so much. For the first part of this song, Chappell’s back was to my side of the audience. When singing a song with such emotional force and power, there is something lost when all your audience can see is the back of the singer’s head.
One more thing: a live band is incorporated into this production. I was glad to see that there is proof of talented musicians across the river in an age when so many local theatres use canned music for musicals. Derby Dinner Playhouse has a really entertaining show happening across the river filled with great dancing, incredible talent and good old fashion rock and roll played loud by a live band.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner