Review: ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ at Stage 42

Wow, what a night! Non-stop energy, a feel-good mood, powerhouse vocals, and a kick-ass band make for one must-see Off-Broadway revival of Smokey Joe’s Cafe at Stage 42. The sung-through jukebox musical revue, which was a record-breaking Broadway sensation in the 1990s, features more than three dozen of the rock-and-roll, rhythm-and-blues, and country-tinged hits of lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller, one of the most influential songwriting teams in American pop music from the 1950s, ‘60s, and beyond, and leaders in the trailblazing crossover style, with its chart-topping appeal to a diverse audience base of fans of the different genres.

John Edwards, Jelani Remy, Dwayne Cooper, and Kyle Taylor Parker.
John Edwards, Jelani Remy, Dwayne Cooper, and Kyle Taylor Parker. Photo by Julia Russell.

Under the ebullient direction and choreography of Joshua Bergasse and original vocal arrangements by Chapman Roberts, a dynamic and expressive cast of five men (Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani Remy, and Max Sangerman) and four women (Emma Degerstedt, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, and Alysha Umphress) not only delivers the blockbuster tunes and period-style dance with pizzazz, but brilliantly enacts the storylines, characters, and emotions inherent in the songs’ lyrics (mostly about love and relationships). Throughout the show’s indefatigable hour and a half of phenomenal solos, flawless harmonies, and masterful moves, the engaging personalities of the multi-talented performers never fail to shine through, in their heartwarming camaraderie, good-natured joking, and irresistible rapport with the audience – all accomplished within the context of the well-chosen and smartly-ordered set list and the framing device of a group of old friends recalling, in music (and one hilarious ad-libbed quip by Remy), the events and feelings of past times, spent together at their favorite eponymous hangout in the “Neighborhood.”

Beowulf Boritt’s inviting bi-level set creates the perfect ambiance for the nostalgic gathering, evoking an intimate mood of congeniality with its warm brick walls and aged wooden bar, tables, and bentwood chairs. It also provides touches of color with its bright neon signs, and ample space for the animated ensemble to move up, down, and around its metal balcony and spiral staircases, enhancing the show’s never-ending vibrancy. Alejo Vietti’s eye-catching costumes and Jeff Croiter’s redolent lighting lend visual support to the musical narratives, reflecting their shifting moods and times of day.

Emma Degerstedt, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Dionne D. Figgins, and Alysha Umphress. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Emma Degerstedt, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Dionne D. Figgins, and Alysha Umphress. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In a show that’s chock full of the famed songwriting duo’s familiar hits – including “Yakety Yak,” “Searchin’,” “Charlie Brown,” “Love Potion #9,” “Kansas City,” “On Broadway,” and the titular “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” (recorded and popularized by such legendary acts as Elvis Presley, The Coasters, The Drifters, Ben E. King, Peggy Lee, and a roster of other pop-music icons) – virtually every number is a standout, from the men’s melodious a cappella doo-wop backup of Sangerman in “Loving You” to the women’s self-empowering rendition of “I’m A Woman” and the full ensemble’s rousing heartfelt call to “Stand by Me.” Whether gyrating to “Jailhouse Rock” (Remy), shaking to “Teach Me How to Shimmy” (Degerstedt), scratching to “Poison Ivy” (Edwards, Cooper, Parker, and Remy), flirting to “Dance with Me” (Figgins and all of the men), or finger-wagging to “Hound Dog” (Ortiz) and “Trouble” (Umphress), each segment is a highlight and every performance a delight.

The high-voltage vocals are accompanied by an electrifying on-stage band (featuring Sherrod Barnes and Doug Derryberry on guitar, Yuka Tadano on bass, Brandon Wright on reeds, Eric Brown on drums, Wilson Torres on percussion, and Derryberry and conductor Matt Oestreicher on synths), with killer orchestrations by Steve Margoshes and Sonny Paladino.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe is not just for baby-boomers who grew up with the music, or later generations of aficionados of the mid-century style, but anyone who appreciates the stellar talents of an exuberant ensemble of singers/dancers/actors and musicians that bring the songs of Leiber and Stoller to life with unsurpassed vitality. That should be just about everyone, so don’t miss it!

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe plays through Sunday, November 4, 2018, at Stage 42 – 422 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.

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Deb Miller
Deb has written reviews, interviews, and feature articles for Stage Magazine, theartblog, and Inferno, and is a lead writer for Phindie.com and the Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice. She is a judge for Theatre Philadelphia's Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, and previously was a Voter for the awards under the former Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Deb holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware, has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and has taught at the U of D, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers-Camden, Hussian School of Art, and Rowan University.