By Erin Fleming
Drury Lane’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe is more than just a lovingly crafted mid-century mixtape of some of the best rock n ’roll tunes ever written; it is an electrifyingly staged scrapbook of musical memories made new again by an unbelievably talented ensemble under the direction of a great storyteller.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe premiered on Broadway in 1995, earning several Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. Not surprisingly the longest running musical revue in Broadway history, SJC showcases 39 familiar pop, rock and blues tunes written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
The legendary songwriting team influenced the careers of Elvis Presley, Phil Specter, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Shangri-Las, The Dixie Cups, Ben E. King and Big Mama Thornton, just to name a few. They are credited with a handful of significant innovations solidifying their status as early architects of rock ‘n’ roll. They were the first to introduce strings on an R&B record in 1959 with The Drifters “There Goes My Baby,” and went on to produce a chain of hits distinguished by surrounding the essential emotive quality of black music with elaborate production.
For a couple of East Coast Jewish white guys, they wrote confidently in the R&B style, bridging the gap between doo-wop and soul, as well as pioneering some of the first ever crossovers from those genres into the more widely accepted pop music category. SJC includes many of their well-known standards like “Stand by Me,” “Young Blood, ” “Ruby Baby,” “Searchin,” “Kansas City,” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
This jukebox revue, unencumbered by a traditional book, plot or dialogue, could easily just come off merely as an enjoyable concert on its feet. But fear not—internationally acclaimed Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge has worked her magic to avoid that trap. First, she’s chosen an amazing ensemble with no weak link. Every. Song. Rocks.
Secondly, she’s empowered that ensemble to bring their individual senses of humor and style into their roles, and to explore and build upon the relationships between their characters. The result is that a fully realized story is told, in episodic fashion, in a series of vignettes. Each song is, as Mike Stoller once described his work, a “little playlet.” Put them all together, and an oral history of the neighborhood emerges: loves lost and found, dreams realized and deferred. Like 39 musical one-act plays.
Amy Orman is adorable as the sassy roller skating waitress Annette, and a fantastic teacher during “Teach Me How to Shimmy.” Meghan Murphy, part torch singer, part Tennesse Williams heroine, belts and growls and purrs out soulful renditions of “Pearl’s a Singer” and an unforgettable “I Keep Forgetting” from a second floor balcony. Carrie Abernathy is sweet and sultry as Pearl, a kind of faded rose. She’s also wonderful with the charming Tyrone Robinson in “You’re the Boss.”
The women all come together to take turns slaying the feminist anthem “I’m a Woman, ” a version of which might be recognizable to the audience from the late seventies “Enjoli” commercial (‘I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan…”) It’s great to hear this gem in its entirety, showcasing each of the women’s individual interpretations in a celebration of the her “infinite variety.”
The men, in contrast, are strongest as a group. Justin Keyes, Sean Blake, Tyrone Robinson, Chris Sams, and Will Skrip harmonize beautifully and team up to hilariously handle the more novelty type songs like “Charlie Brown,” “Little Egypt,” and “Love Potion #9.” They are all stellar, and Keyes’ comic timing is wonderful, especially as an unrepentant ne’er do well besought by missionaries in “D.W. Washburn.” Later, he seems to channel an otherworldly presence, somewhere between Ben E. King and Prince, for his heart-wrenchingly dramatic “I, Who Have Nothing.”
No doubt though, that in this ensemble of all-stars, Donica Lynn is queen. With a range and tessitura like Aretha, she scats like Ella, slides like Patti and consistently brings her own undeniable authenticity to all her numbers as no-nonsense Willie Mae. Her breathtaking, may-as-well-send-everybody-home-now rendition of “Fools Fall In Love” brings down what’s left of the house. It must have been quite an artistic dilemma figuring out what could possibly follow that, and Abernathy dancing with a shirtless Sams to “Spanish Harlem” is a spectacular choice.
The outstanding five-member Maxwell Street Band is seated on stage where they can easily rock, roll and interact with the cast. King (saxophonist Alex Beltran) and T-Bone (guitarist Buddy Fambro) get some great solo turns in “Yakety Yak” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Keyboardist Norty (Chris Sargeant) takes time out from conducting for a tender, stripped down piano man moment — so evocative of the era, and a welcome interlude among so many high octane performances.
In her program notes, Dodge says that she approached the show with the intent of making it meaningful to Chicago audiences. To that end, by focusing on the song “Neighborhood,” she set the piece in the Maxwell Street Market area of Chicago’s South Side in the 50s, a melting pot of cultures and home base of the blues.
Kevin Depinet’s set perfectly captures the time and place, and Sound Designer Ryan Hickey assists the ambiance by having a broadcast of the 1959 White Sox/Dodgers World Series playing as theatergoers enter the auditorium. Sully Ratke’s period costumes are stunning and playful throughout, standouts being Annette’s fringy shimmy mini and the red, sequined blazers worn by the men during “On Broadway.” Abernathy’s gown is revealed as the reason for the color lavender existing.
There’s a great classic SNL sketch where Paul Simon makes a deal with the devil for a successful career, only to end up in his own personal hell—stuck in an elevator, forced to listen to horrible muzak versions of his songs for all eternity. If that is songwriter’s hell, songwriter’s heaven might turn out to be something like Smokey Joe’s Cafe for Leiber and Stoller. More than simply a showcase of their prolific career, this production presents each song fully realized to the zenith of its vocal, musical and emotional potential. That’s due in no small part to Roberta Duchak’s musical direction and Dodge’s choreography bringing out the absolute best in the cast. One example being Lynn’s homage to Big Mama Thornton during “Hound Dog.” So much more compelling than Elvis’ radio hit version, Lynn and Keyes act out a relationship gone wrong with honesty and humor befitting the classic’s R&B pedigree.
There’s hesitation to use the word nostalgia—the better descriptor would be timeless. This is a family-friendly show, full of good-boned songs that all baby boomers grew up listening to, GenX artists covered, and youngsters will instantly love.
Drury Lane Theatre presents “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” through Oct. 23 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. More information and tickets are available here.