Andrea Diggs, Kyle Braun, Lauren McCombs, Devin Jewrell Holley, & Tymika Prince in Smokey Joe’s Café. Photo by Caroline Knop.
Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
Directed/Choreographed by Frank Goodloe III
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
Believe me, if you are at all familiar with Doo Wop groups or even the acclaimed King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, then you know Leiber and Stoller.
Lyricist Jerry Leiber met composer Mike Stoller in California in the early 1950’s where they began collaborating on songs while both were in school. Together they produced some 70 hit songs over the span of their career. Over 30 of these classic tunes are highlighted and showcased in Broadway’s longest running musical review: Smokey Joe’s Café.
Smokey Joe’s, which made its debut in November 1995, is the brainchild of Stephen Helper, Jack Viertel, and Otis Sallid. As I mentioned before, the show is in the style of a musical review that has a nominal narrative and a theme that is non-existent. A cast of nine performers wind their way through decades worth of music written by Leiber and Stoller, with a few thrown in by popular collaborators such as Doc Pomus and Ben E. King.
CenterStage gave the audience a feeling of being at a club by changing out the elevated seating for round tables draped with black tablecloths and candles on mirrors for centerpieces. On stage, the Orchestra, under the direction of Angie Hopperton, was backlit and seated behind a set of stairs with three platforms that was reminiscent of the set design of the company’s production of West Side Story. The design fit the needs of the singers and was apropos to some of the music that was showcased throughout the evening.
The show starts with the little known “Neighborhood,” which was written with another successful songwriting team at the time, John Sembello and Ralph Dino (who would later work with talents such as The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Turtles). It is within “Neighborhood” that I start getting a taste of the vocal talent of the evening.
The quartet of Devin Holley, Marcus Fisher, Frank Goodloe III and Alonzo Richmond gave the audience a sense of taking us back to the days of The Coasters, who brought songs such as “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” and “Searchin’” to life. I want to believe that Director/Choreographer Frank Goodloe III spent some time in watching old reels of vintage clips of The Coasters and The Drifters when setting up the dance moves for this troupe. I say that because I noticed many, many similarities, and it brought a fun and entertaining element to the performance.
If anyone knows anything about four part harmonies, you know that it takes great skill and listening abilities to stay in key and in sync with one another. Unfortunately, during “Keep on Rollin’” the quartet lost their way during the bridge, not once, but twice. Despite that bit of derailment, the harmonic blends were some of the best of the evening.
Now, yes it is a 9 person review, so there is usually going to be an odd man out, but make no mistake, what Kyle Braun doesn’t get to do in most of the quartets he makes up for in his solo and group performances. His “Ruby Baby” makes me think of a 50’s heartthrob and he was loveable as “DW Washburn”.
Devin Holley’s lead on “Searchin’” was strong but I have to ask, what happened to “Treat Me Nice”? I am wrapping my head around the vocalization for that song. Marcus Fisher’s “Poison Ivy” was delicious and melodic, while his “Spanish Harlem” was rich and romantic. Despite some microphone problems during “Little Egypt,” where Frank Goodloe III was straining to be heard, he certainly found his voice with “There Goes My Baby”. A lot of the impact of the production rested on the shoulders of Alonzo Richman. It was telling that he was the only one in the group that had some range in the lower notes and I dare say he appeared to surprise himself on occasion. When the reach was too much I could hear that he would adjust his ability to suit the music. Good musicianship there. HIs standout number, “I (Who Have Nothing),” had the audience whoo-hooing throughout.
Let’s talk about the ladies of the review. Featuring some of the region’s well-known voices: Jessica Adamson, Andrea Diggs, Lauren McCombs and Tymika Price.
Unlike the men’s quartets, the ladies didn’t have as many opportunities for tight harmonies but they did very well when they had the chance. Their standout moment was definitely in the anthem “I’m A Woman”, previously sung by the likes of Peggy Lee and even Miss Piggy.
While I thought Lauren McCombs’ mousey interpretation of “Falling” was cute, she was vocally better in her duet with Andrea Diggs on “Trouble”. Jessica Adamson’s “I Keep Forgettin’” was fine, but not as engaging as “Pearl’s A Singer,” which added some va-va-voom to the evening. Speaking of vivaciousness, Andrea Diggs’ “Don Juan” was very well executed and gave just the right tinge of naughtiness. Tymika Price could have closed the show with her bring-the-house-down version of “Saved,” or her “Hound Dog”, but the reprise of “Fools Fall in Love” seemed to be set too high and she was straining her vocal range.
Ms. Hopperton’s orchestral assembly was some of the best playing that I had heard at CenterStage for a while, despite percussive bongos almost taking the speakers out.
Melissa Shepherd and Erin Jump’s costuming looked like something that could have been culled from any of the performer’s own closets but carefully curated to match the song or the set. Lighting, for the most part was well executed, but it was very dark for performers when the need for two spotlights was quite obvious.
I’ve mentioned this before and I have to mention this again. No matter how well you sing or realistically perform and spit out the most eloquent soliloquy, the microphone and sound system at CenterStage distorts the quality and distracts from escapist enjoyment. I do hope that some adjustments will be made to the aged system soon.
Smokey Joe’s Café is certainly a welcome addition to the Louisville Theater scene this fall and I encourage you to shimmy and shake your way to CenterStage and enjoy.
Smoky Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
September 7, 9, 11, 14, & 16 @ 7:30 pm
September 10 & 12 @ 2 pm
September 17 @ 6:30pm
Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 on Saturday night and Sunday matinees, $2 “at the door” charge
Jewish Community Center
3600 Dutchman’s Lane
Louisville, Kentucky 40205
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.