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Smokey’s Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller

Dynamic cast of nine singers and dancers burns up the stage in this reimagining of the long-running revue by director/choreographer Joshua Bergasse.

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John Edwards, Jelani Remy, Dwayne Cooper, and Kyle Taylor Parker strut their stuff to “On Broadway” in a scene from “Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller” (Photo credit: Julia Russell)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller is back in a new version and as directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (On the Town, Cagney, Sweet Charity, NBC’s Smash), it is burning up the floor of Stage 42. The songs (pop, jazz, rock, R & B, blues and gospel) of this prolific team which were originally sung by Elvis Presley, the Coasters, the Drifters, Ruth Brown, Perry Como and Ben E. King should be familiar to all.

Although Smokey Joe’s Café has been seen in New York before, the new production now at Stage 42 is an entirely different incarnation of the show that still holds the record for Broadway musical revues having racked up 2,036 performances. The new version which again uses nine talented and dynamic singers and dancers, five men and four women, has deleted five songs and added five, rearranged the song list for a new total of 40, and eliminated the intermission. It is now a more streamlined version of the 1995 show.

Emma Degerstedt, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Dionne D. Figgins and Alysha Umphress declare “I’m A Woman” in a scene from “Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

At the beginning of the juke box era on Broadway, the original show made up of 39 songs from the Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller catalog was criticized for being plotless, dialogue-less and having no theme or recognizable organization. In Bergasse’s hands, the show now seems to have a wisp of a unifying theme underlying the new running order: love remembered, love pursued, love lost, love found and love triumphant. Beowulf Boritt’s magnificent two-story brick café with its three spiral staircases, high mahogany bar and dozens of old-time radios in niches all around the walls sets the nostalgic mood for the show as does the opening number, “Neighborhood” which speaks of “Faded pictures in my scrapbook,” “It’s a picture of the boy next door,” and “All those friends/We used to know” as all nine performers greet each other as they enter Smokey Joe’s.

The extremely talented and versatile cast appears in various combinations as well as solos. The five men (Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani Remy, plus Max Sangerman who occasionally joins them and also accompanies on guitar) often appear together as a close harmony group. The women (Emma Degerstedt, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz and Alysha Umphress) – dressed in different colors by designer Alejo Vietti and more recognizable – usually appear solo or in duets with the men. Among the memorable group numbers are Dwayne, John, Kyle and Jelani dressed in stylish red and black jackets high-stepping to “On Broadway,” whose high-powered staging resembles A Chorus Line. All four women turn “I’m A Woman” into an awesome anthem.

Dionne D. Figgins and Dwayne Cooper dance to “Spanish Rose” in a scene from “Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

However, each performer is given several songs that are all their own. Dionne (formerly of Dance Theater of Harlem) takes the dancing honors adding sizzle to the show with her “Dance with Me,” in which all the men turn her down until Jelani joins her, and “Spanish Harlem” which  begins as a flamenco and ends as a tango where she is again joined by Jelani. The highly ironic “Don Juan” and the cheeky “You’re the Boss” team her with Dwayne.

Emma Degerstedt teaches Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, Dwayne Cooper and Max Sangerman how to “Shimmy in a scene from “Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Emma turns into a perpetual motion machine in her incredible dance to “Teach Me How to Shimmy” in which she gives lessons to the men. As a soprano, she also turns “Falling (in Love with You”) into a one-act play as she “imagines” singing a love song to the oblivious John – until he leaves his jacket behind and returns to find her caressing it. Alysha (who was a memorable Hildy in the last Broadway revival of On the Town) turns “I Keep Forgettin’,” “Trouble,” (backed by bassist Yuka Tadano) and “Pearl’s A Singer” to Max’s guitar into unforgettable torch songs with her rich voice. Full-throated Nicole does the same for her blues songs, “Fools Fall in Love,” “Hound Dog” where she chases Kyle around the stage, and the encore, the gospel-like “Saved.”

Kyle puts his comic gifts to use in the dramatized “Along Came Jones” in which he plays an obliging Sweet Sue complete with a wig with yellow pigtails, “Treat Me Nice” in which he implores the women to join him, his ab libs in “There Goes My Baby,” and “Love Potion#9” in which he gets drunk on the prop vial of green smoking fluid. Dressed in a black striped see-through shirt, Jelani’s “Jailhouse Rock” rivals that of Presley himself and wows with incredible acrobatics.

Baritone John offers powerful renditions of “I Who Have Nothing” and “Stand By Me,” as well as a terrifically fast-paced version of “Love Me/Don’t,” a duet with Emma. Bass Dwayne adds his incredibly deep voice to many of the group songs but the staged “Little Egypt” accompanied by the other men is all his. He also shows his dancing skills in his partnering with Dionne in “Don Juan,” as his comic talents as the mischievous “Charlie Brown” which begins in the aisles of the audience and then returns to the stage.

Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, John Edwards, Dwayne Cooper and Max Sangerman mug their way through “Charlie Brown” in a scene from “Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The show uses new orchestrations by Sonny Paladino and Steve Margoshes, as well as using the original vocal arrangement by Chapman Roberts and additional original vocal arrangements by Louis St. Louis. Conducted by Matt Oestreicher, the terrific eight-piece band is given a break now and then when the men sign a capella and when Oestreicher and Doug Derryberry compete in the “Dueling Pianos” number. Considering the state of sound design in the New York theater these days, Peter Fitzgerald has performed a remarkable job making all of the song lyrics clear and understandable.

Jeff Croiter’s lighting adds atmosphere to many of the songs by subtle light changes (blue, red, purple, green). Vietti’s costumes for the men are surprisingly nondescript, while several of the women’s costumes are very unflattering. As director/choreographer, Bergasse cleverly weaves dance throughout the show which helps to keep it from seeming like only a stage concert. In this new format, the unbeatable Smokey Joe’s Café may just run as long as the original production.

Smokey Joe’s Café: the Songs of Lieber & Stoller (open run)

Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.smokeyjoescafemusical.com

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (525 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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