This is Garrett Stack on The Theatre Circuit, coming from Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.
Let’s play Jeopardy with me for a minute: I’ll take words and music for $500, Alex. Lieber and Stoller. OK, WMNR listeners for $500, “Who are songwriters of classic rock ‘n’ roll and pop who had their heyday in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.” You got it. Too bad we’re not on Jeopardy and too bad we don’t have the $500. But what we do have is a high-energy production of Smokey Joe’s Café – The Songs of Lieber and Stoller.
On Broadway for five years in the late 1990’s, Smokey Joe’s Café features three-dozen songs that baby boomers and their parents will recall with fondness and be able to mouth every word. This straightforward jukebox musical is literally a jukebox with song after song coming at you non-stop without book or dialogue. What you get is over two hours of songs you know like Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Yakety Yak, Searchin’, Poison Ivy, Love Potion #9, I’m a Woman, On Broadway, Stand By Me and then some you probably don’t know like the gems, Pearl’s a Singer, Keep on Rollin’, and Saved.
Presented by a cast of nine and a band of five, who do justice to this music from a bygone era, there are several bright spots in the production. Smokey Joe’s opens with a song penned specifically for this show to set the scene for what’s to come. Neighborhood is an easygoing ballad that recalls the old days and old friends and old photographs delivered superbly by the company to get us to relax and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it is.
The petite Famecia Ward, an American Idol contender, delivers her songs like Trouble and Don Juan with sass and assuredness. Ron Lucas, a good actor and the relatively senior member of the cast, puts forth Elvis’ Love Me and Don’t with thought and maturity that gives those songs new meaning. Other cast members in solo spots and as group members are capable and come across with the goods. But the stand out performance throughout Smokey Joe’s come from Dawn Marie Driver whose style is much like the famed Nell Carter. She can belt and strut and embrace that unique vocal quality that cuts through any background and pushes itself way out in front. She’s big. She’s black. And she’s one hell of a singer.
Costume changes were varied and the action never stopped as one number morphed into the next. The whole night flies by and you really do leave the theater with a song or two on your lips.
My only concern about the show is one that often irks me: sound balance. In many cases, the balance between the vocalists and the band was way in favor of the band at the expense of the lyrics. As much as I enjoyed Don Juan, a relatively lesser-known Lieber and Stoller song, I only enjoyed it because I know the song. Had I been fresh to the show I would have had no idea what Famecia was singing. Sound design is something the audience should not even think about. But when you can’t hear the singer, something’s wrong.
An audience crowd pleaser, it’s definitely worth paying a visit to Smokey Joe’s Café at Long Wharf Theater. It’s a musical revue that lives up to its reputation of being lots of fun with old time with Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s smokin’ in New Haven through July 28.
On the Theatre Circuit for WMNR, I’m Garrett Stack.