By Christopher Arnott
3:59 PM EDT, July 23, 2013
Smokey Joe’s Café
Through July 28 at the Long Wharf Theater. (203) 787-4282, www.longwharf.org
I’ve always argued that some Broadway shows—Hair, Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent and the sleazy revival of Cabaret—often work better in low-rent, non-Equity roadshows than they do in slick, well-budgeted professional productions. Lean and hungry and up-for-anything makes for good theater, and some shows are just made to be done by brash younger performers who have little to lose from acting out.
Smokey Joe’s Café’s is one of those shows that really shouldn’t be too dressed up. The original Broadway production was chided by some critics for being little more than a concert revue, with even less of a “book” or character development than the show it most obviously resembles, Ain’t Misbehavin’. But the songwriters whose work it extols, Lieber & Stoller, were life-long musical theater buffs, and the pair’s mutual autobiography Hound Dog, published in 2010 suggests they knew exactly what they were doing by scaling back. This tour, produced by Supreme Talent International, takes that simplicity to a dangerous extreme.
Long Wharf hosted a revival of Ain’t Misbehavin’ a couple seasons back, and it’s instructive to see a touring version of Smokey Joe’s Café there now. Both shows felt the need to use body mics, even though any blues/R&B singer worth the salt would have no trouble projecting unamplified in that 500-seat theater. Both shows have their bands play fairly low, situated at the back of the stage. The microphones make the voices feel disembodied from the performers, which is weird when they spend so much time interacting with the audience.
Those mics, at least, suggest that the show has a budget. Where Smokey Joe’s Café distinguishes itself is with its production values. They are very low. Behind the band is a curtain of glittery streamers such as you might buy at a party store. For a couple of songs there are props—suitcases for “Kansas City,” green wigs and vests for “Poison Ivy.” But generally speaking, your average tribute band has richer costume design, sets and staging than this.
Yet, as my 11-year-old daughter—who loved this show, and downloaded a bunch of its songs (by the original artists) the morning after she saw it—has argued, less can be more. I tend to agree. When you have dynamic performers who put their whole bodies into a show, especially one as rockin’ and rollin’ as this one, why dress it up? Not that everyone in this cast can be deemed dynamic, but at least a couple don’t need any help from designers.
Famecia Ward, I suspect, would look glamorous in a potato sack, as long as she was singing the Peggy Lee numbers “Don Juan” and “Some Cats” in the sultry manner she does here. Ward steps right into the crowd, and sits right down on a gentleman’s lap, with seductive grace. Likewise, Dawn Marie Driver, who’s given the red-hot-mama tunes such as Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and LaVern Baker’s “Saved,” steps ably into the sort of role which comedian Martin Short mocked with the song “A Big Black Lady Stops the Show.”
The show’s live band is an eclectic mix. Pittsburgh saxophonist Rick Matt blows smooth Philly-style riffs. Drummer Bruce Jackson, who hails from New Jersey, seems to have one stick in in old-school swing and the other in be-bop. John Bronston, the show’s pianist and music director, twists the songs from the earthier old blues model of R&B to a contemporary gospel/soul one. The other two members of the band are locals: Dominic Landolfi, who teaches Applied Guitar at Quinnipiac University; and ubiquitous local bassist Jeff Fuller, who already has one steady gig in the Long Wharf area—leading the Friday night jazz combo at Sage Restaurant.
So, given the variations and inconsistencies and financial constraints evident here, how does the material hold up? Pretty darn well. Lieber & Stoller wrote songs with well-drawn characters and plot momentum. Even a fantasy comedy number such as “Love Potion #9” has several detailed descriptions of the mysterious Madame Rue, plus a twist ending.
Smokey Joe’s Café can be done on a shoestring without looking so cheap. I remember a delightful production at Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre years ago which evoked the show’s titular café with little more of a set (i.e. cafe tables) than Supreme Talent International provides, yet a lot more class. At the same time however, there’s not much anyone can do to upset the joy audiences get from hearing Lieber & Stoller songs. This production, for instance, does not have a bass or a baritone to intone essential Coasters punchlines such as “Don’t talk back” or “Why is everybody always pickin’ on me?’ The crowd doesn’t seem to care, shouting the lines themselves. And how can anyone take offense at any reasonable rendition of “Stand by Me”? It’s practically our second national anthem.
This Smokey Joe’s Café will only stand out for you if you’ve never experienced the show in any way before. But as a charming summer diversion, Long Wharf has done a lot worse. (Menopause the Musical, anyone?). This show shimmies, searches, dances, falls in love, keeps forgettin’ and keeps on rollin’ in fair enough fashion that its failings scarcely matter. Baby, that is rock & roll.
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