Let me begin by saying ArtsCentric’s production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe is one of the best things I’ve seen on a Baltimore stage, ever, anywhere. I had high expectations for this self-proclaimed “color-conscious” company, and its current production took those expectations, twirled them around, and left me weak in the knees with satisfaction.
The Baltimore theater company has created a Smokey Joe’s Cafe where romance and comedy and community are alive and well, and the audience is wholeheartedly invited to be a part of it. Although the musical revue of songs by 1950s and ’60s hit-makers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is completely sung with no dialogue, ArtsCentric’s excellent cast has created fully-formed characters whose relationships are clearly conveyed through songs like “Hound Dog,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “Love Potion No. 9” to name only a handful of the 38 numbers in the show.
Actors filling roles of performers, café staff and patrons seamlessly integrate with audience members seated at café tables around two stages. The audience feels like they are actual patrons and participants in this nostalgic world. I usually hate when actors try to engage with me, or when a show tries to be interactive by encouraging the audience to react in some way. But the audience participation in Smokey Joe’s Cafe feels natural and authentic. I was in gospel choir for one semester in college and left almost solely because I have no rhythm clapping along to music. It feels awkward to me, and I usually cringe when performers encourage the crowd to smack their hands together. But let me tell you, I unashamedly clapped along several times during Smokey Joe’s Cafe. That is how comfortable I felt, and I don’t think I was alone. During “Yakety Yak,” audience members, including my date (who called the show “musical heaven”), were pulled up on stage to dance, and all seemed more than happy to do so.
That these nine outstanding performers are in Baltimore instead of on Broadway right now is a gift that audiences need to take advantage of before Smokey Joe’s Cafe closes June 10. As the four-member café headlining guy group, Ricardo Blagrove, Bryan Jeffery, DeCarlo Raspberry and Derrick Truby croon, harmonize, dance and charm as well as any of the famous groups of the early rock ’n’ roll era. Blagrove and Raspberry are the “hound dogs” of the foursome, with multiple romantic entwinements with patrons throughout the evening. Jeffery, hitting some crazy high notes, mostly loves his liquor—played for laughs in his solo, “Treat Me Nice.” Waiter Edwin Santiago Perez is devoted to waitress Kylie Smith (the girl has pipes), who sweetly gives in to his affection during a touching rendition of “Spanish Harlem.”
Patrons Jessica Bennett and Shayla Lowe—both involved with philandering guy group singers— show off impressive vocals and distinct personalities (Bennett is fierce, Lowe sweet). Kelli Blackwell, as an amorous, spotlight-loving patron in a sequin blazer and crimped ponytail, has a diva voice and laugh-out-loud comic timing. Her entrance on “Dance with Me” is a highlight. The ladies have many standout moments throughout the show. I especially liked Bennett, Lowe, and Smith on “Don Juan,” Bennett and Smith on “Some Cats Know” (sung from the bar) and the foursome’s empowering “W.O.M.A.N.” The fellas have a touchingly pleading moment with “I (Who Have Nothing)” before a downright heartwarming “Loving You” sung by the entire cast. On that song, I was holding back tears and noticed several wet cheeks on my fellow patrons.
The performances are enhanced by excellent production support that needs to be commended. Kevin S. McAllister’s direction moves these actors purposely around the space and brings out distinct personalities in each performer. He creates a world where the audience learns about these characters through their songs, and successfully ensures that Smokey Joe’s Cafe is not just a performance, but an experience.
Ashleigh King’s choreography has the guy group stepping like the Temptations and the full cast electrifying the space with their dancing, particularly on the dance-heavy “D.W. Washburn” and “Baby, That is Rock and Roll.” And the actors’ voices could not soar as well as they do without the music direction and talented band led by Cedric D. Lyles. The set design (by Jimmy Stubbs), lighting design (by Helen Garcia-Alton) and costumes (by Nicholas Staigerwald) all are fantastic, as well.
Opener “Neighborhood” and the end-of-show second reprise sincerely make you feel like you’re a part of this special community. Smokey Joe’s Café is magical. Go see this show. I will gospel choir clap for you if you don’t like it.
Running Time: About 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.