Monday, July 22, 2013

Theater Review: Smokey Joe's Cafe -- Long Wharf Theatre

Smokey Joe’s Café Brings Cool Sounds to Hot Summer at Long Wharf
By Lauren Yarger
Looking for a way to beat the heat of squelching temperatures this summer? Try something else that’s hot: the cool songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller rolled into the revue Smokey Joe’s Café entertaining in the air conditioned Mainstage at Long Wharf Theatre.

A cast of nine singers and five musicians rock the place out with tunes by the popular 1950s songwriting team including standards like “Young Blood,” “Kansas City,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “I’m a Woman,” “On Broadway” and many others (there are more than 30 numbers).

This version of the 1995 Tony-Award-nominated musical is a tour stop by Irving Street Rep (New Jersey) and stars Vida Allworthy, Derrick Baker, Jonathan Celestin, Dawn Marie Driver, Jose Figueroa, Jr., Ron Lucas, Jay Rivera, Famecia Ward and Stevanie Anita Williams directed by producer A. Curtis Farrow. Music Director John Bronston plays piano and directs the band on stage (Darius Frowner also musical directs).

The revue contains no dialogue. Each song is presented as a little vignette, with the performers acting out the song with a few supplemental costume items and props. Choreography is minimal and unimaginative, but Farrow gets cast members out into the house for some fun interaction with audience members who find themselves doing the shimmy up on stage or becoming a character in one of the songs. A guy named Dave seated in the front row was in the spotlight a few times. Members not directly involved in the action find themselves clapping, bopping and singing along with the tunes.

The show offers a nice changeup between rock and roll and ballads giving each of the performers a chance to shine. Driver, in particular, wows the crowd with her blow-you-out-of-your-seat volume.
Diehard fans of the original soundtrack will want to know that a few of the songs, most notably “Shopping for Clothes” and “You’re the Boss,” are omitted here. The original show had a run of 2,036 performances, making it the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history and the soundtrack recording won the Grammy Award.

Irving Street Rep was founded in 1991. Farrow, producer and director of McDonald’s Gospelfest, has won two Emmys and was named one of the top 20 influences in gospel music (he orchestrated the service for Whitney Houston’s funeral). He produced Ain’t Misbehavin’ which has been touring for about 10 years. He also has produced Five Guys Named Mo in the current rotation of shows in rep at which Irving Street.

The show runs about two hours with an intermission. A perfect way to beat the heat.

Smokey Joe's runs through July 28 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. : Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets $59 (203) 787-4282;
The cast of Smokey Joe's Cafe. Photo courtesy of Long Wharf.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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