Smokey Joe’s Cafe Review: Flipping Over Elvis Songwriters Leiber and Stoller

Near the beginning of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” the new Off-Broadway revival of the long-running Broadway musical revue, performer Jelani Remy does a double back flip while singing the Elvis hit, “Jailhouse Rock.” It is the most memorable example in the show of what we can call The Bergasse Workout, which I’m naming after the production’s inventive and obviously demanding director/choreographer Joshua Bergasse, celebrated for his splashy moves in the 2014 Broadway revival of “On The Town,” the 2016 Off-Broadway revival of “Sweet Charity,” and his Emmy-winning choreography for the TV show “Smash.”
The “Smokey Joe’s” at Stage 42 differs only slightly from the original Broadway show, which opened at the Virginia in 1995 and ran for more than 2,000 performances, almost five years. Five men and four women deliver 40 musical numbers in 90 minutes – no time for idle chat…or any dialogue whatsoever.
This time around, the creative team has eliminated the intermission, and reordered some of the songs, exchanging about a half dozen from the original for new additions. Beowulf Boritt’s set, in place of the abstract collage of the Broadway production,  is a more or less believable neighborhood bar, enhanced with brick walls and dark-wood counters, beneath shelves full of booze and radios; neon signs of beer brands, and a dramatic balcony reached by wrought-iron staircases (which I expected the performers to climb up and down, but they didn’t.). The most significant difference, though, is Bergasse’s choreography.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

The performers in the revival are veterans of “Motown” and “Jersey Boys” and “Memphis,” and know how to deliver the rock and blues and doo wop standards that Leiber and Stoller wrote for 50s and early 60s vocal groups like The Coasters and The Searchers and The Drifters. And so, yes, four of the male performers don identical red jackets with shimmering black trim, and execute smoothly synchronized finger-snapping and toe-tapping while crooning The Drifter’s hit “On Broadway” (which was co-written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and is thus also featured in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”)

This “Smokey Joe,” however, is distinguished by the variety and energy of the performers’ moves. Dionne Figgins, who began her career at Dance Theatre of Harlem, performs sultry balletic solos or pas de deux, in numbers such as “Dance With Me,” “Don Juan,” and “You’re the Boss”;  Remy sings “Spanish Harlem” while Figgins accompanies the song with a flamenco baile. In “Teach Me How To Shimmy,” Emma Degerstedt, wearing a 60’s-style layered pink feather mini-dress, inexhaustibly does what the song promises at blinding speed. There are several songs performed almost as mimed dance-skits.  When Nicole Vanessa Ortiz delivers “Hound Dog” ( in a rendition that pays homage to Big Mama Thornton, rather than Elvis), John Edwards runs away in fear from her accusing finger, at one point using a chair as if trying to fend off a lioness.  In “Love Potion # 9,”  Kyle Taylor Parker comically mimes a despondent soul whom the four other men try to cheer up, finally offering him vials of the magical green potion on trays. The cast sometimes even literally dances in the aisles.

But Bergasse also knows when to leave a song alone.  “I Am Woman,” made famous by Peggy Lee, showcases the four powerhouse women in the cast, each getting a solo turn belting out a bluesy verse. Familiar melodies such as “Stand By Me” are supplemented by lesser-known gospel, folk and jazz: Alysha Umphress, a memorable Hildy in (the Bergasse-choreographed) “On The Town”, performs an exquisitely jazz-inflected “Trouble” accompanied by bass player Yuka Tadano. There is even a countrified number, “Keep on Rollin’,” complete with washboard instrument and cowboy hats.  And one especially delightful musical interlude involves neither singing nor dancing, just Jerry Lee Lewis style “Dueling Pianos.”

“Smokey Joe’s Café” is a polished collection of musical numbers, a pleasant diversion. When it opened on Broadway, several critics felt that it did not hold together as a revue in the manner of  “Ain’t Misbehaving” – that it felt too random and too chipper, performed shorn of the grit of the individual songs, and the context in which they were appreciated. The revival feels more varied in tone, and includes some grit; Bergasse’s choreography often helps supply a sense of context. But perhaps, as songwriters, the late Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (now 85) were too protean (to frame it positively) and commercial (to frame it negatively) for a revue of their music to achieve any easy coherence.  In any case, audiences apparently had no such qualms about the show, and are unlikely to have any now, especially since tickets for it at the Shubert’s Off-Broaday Stage 42 are about a third lower than they would be in one of the Shubert’s Broadway theaters.

Smokey Joe’s Café Song List

  1. Neighborhood
  2. Young Blood
  3. Falling
  4. Fools Fall in Love
  5. Ruby Baby
  6. Dance With Me
  7. Neighborhood Reprise #1
  8. Keep On Rollin’
  9. Searchin’
  10. Kansas City
  11. Along Came Jones
  12. Poison Ivy
  13. Don Juan
  14. Jailhouse Rock
  15. Smokey Joe’s Café
  16. Bossa Nova Baby.
  17. Yakety Yak
  18. Charlie Brown
  19. Dueling Pianos
  20. On Broadway
  21. I Keep Forgettin’
  22. Teach Me How to Shimmy
  23. You’re the Boss
  24. Loving You
  25. Trouble
  26. Love Me/Don’t
  27. Smokey Joe’s Café Reprise
  28. Treat Me Nice
  29. Hound Dog
  30. Pearl’s A Singer
  31. Little Egypt
  32. I’m A Woman
  33. There Goes My Baby
  34. Love Potion #9
  35. Spanish Harlem
  36. I Who Have Nothing
  37. Fools Fall In Love Reprise
  38. Neighborhood Reprise #2
  39. Stand By Me
  40. Saved (Encore)

 

Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Stage 42 (422 West 42nd Street)
Music and lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller,
Directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Alejo Vietti, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, sound design by Peter Fitzgerald, wig design by Charles G. LaPointe,, original vocal arrangements by Chapman Roberts, additional original vocal arrangements by Louis St. Louis and orchestrations by Sonny
Paladino and Steve Margoshes.
Cast: Dwayne Cooper, Emma Degerstedt, John Edwards, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Kyle Taylor Parker,Jelani Remy, Max Sangerman, and Alysha Umphress
Ticket prices: $49 – $109
Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

 

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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