BWW Reviews: SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE Rocks Lieber and Stoller at Allenberry
The jukebox musical phenomenon, love it or hate it, is here to stay (and has been, for that matter, since the "Beggar's Opera" in 1726). By and large it seems a thin lot, weak books with implausible plots that string together a laundry list of otherwise unrelated songs that the audience already knew before the show was even conceived, only a few really excellent outside of their music. On the other hand there are the revues that make no excuse for their presentation of a fine crop of songs that hang together on their own merit – and that is all that SMOKEY JOE'S CAFÉ: THE SONGS OF LIEBER AND STOLLER has ever laid claim to be. On offer at Allenberry Playhouse right now, this production is almost completely satisfying, performed by a cast with the absolutely right vocal combination needed to bring Jerry Lieber's and Mike Stoller's words and music to life.
This is the perfect show for the Allenberry stage – a small one compared to many theatres that produce full-scale musicals, Allenberry's size brings an immediacy and an intimacy to the show that the songs' performance richly deserves. It frames the actors rather than dwarfing them; rather than looking as if they are crowded, the cast, when all on stage, look as if they are indeed together in a room. And in the mind of the viewer, they should all be in one room together, or in one back yard, because this is a show about intimacy, about neighbors. "Neighborhood" is the song that reprises throughout the show and draws it to the final song; we are meant to feel as if we are looking back on life through its lyrics: "Faded pictures in a scrapbook" and "friends I used to know" are the lyrics that run through the song and pervade the show. And indeed, the seemingly assorted collection of songs does have themes connecting them of friendship, of love won and lost, of youth giving way to experience.
Lieber and Stoller all but created and maintained rock and roll; there is hardly a song here that most people, regardless of age, don't know well if not by heart. If any show's song collection can be said to be the fabric of people's lives, it is this one. And as so many of these songs are so close to many people's hearts, the only way to do them justice is with an exceptional group of actor/singers. Director Roque Berlanga has done just that – this is the right cast, the right voices, the right chemistry. All nine actors are excellent; a few are absolutely exceptional. This is a cast that can take us through The Coasters, The Drifters, Ben E. King, Elvis Presley, and Peggy Lee, and make us love what we see and hear rather than miss the original versions.
Jarrad Baker's bass-baritone is a welcome low note throughout the entire show, the anchor of the male quartet and quintet and an absolute delight through his steamy duet with Roslyn Seale (who should, like Betty Grable, insure those incredible legs) on "You're the Boss".
Bentley Black may be vying for the title of "hardest working man in show business" – his boundless energy during "Teach Me How To Shimmy" (accompanied by a truly outstanding shimmy by Audrey Layne Crocker, resplendent in an iconic 1960's white fringed miniskirt) and in his Elvis turn in "Jailhouse Rock" are two highlights of a very fine series of vignettes illustrating the music. A Memphis native, Black is back to his musical roots in his Southern rocker persona in "Jailhouse Rock" and in "Ruby Baby".
The true star of the night, however, is Katie McCreary, who last graced the Allenberry stage as "Mama" Morton (and as the voice of Mary Sunshine) in CHICAGO. Her "Saved" and her reprise of "Fools Fall in Love" pin the audience's ears back as she delivers – and delivers – some phenomenal vocals. If you attend this show for no other reason, attend it to hear this woman sing.
Group performances truly worthy of note include "Little Egypt" performed to hilarious effect by the male quintet and "I'm A Woman" by the four women, which is a bring-down-the-house group performance of a song that's normally performed as a clone of Peggy Lee's version. The men's Drifters and Coasters group turns are uniformly worth the price of admission, as well.
The right stage, the right cast, and the right stage band, as well as some outstanding wardrobing (kudos to Mercedes Maccarino for her wonderful 1960's stage wardrobing, right down to that pair of blue suede shoes) – what could possibly go wrong with a production like this? Absolutely nothing… except for Allenberry's notorious sound issues. Several songs, including "I Keep Forgettin'" and "Baby, That Is Rock and Roll" have lyrics nearly drowned out by the band. Admittedly, the band is great, but the sound balance is off. Oh, Allenberry, when will you update your sound system? In the past few years the quality of the shows here has improved so greatly that your audiences would like to appreciate them fully even when not sitting in the first few rows.
Even purists recognize that musical theatre has made use of the microphone since the 1970's, but the technology has improved radically since those early days, and audiences have come to expect seamless, properly balanced sound in professional musical shows. (The first Tony for sound design was awarded for "The 39 Steps", which Allenberry is about to produce. Expectations on sound are now beyond musicals alone.) I will be the first to admit that the sound issue is one of the things that kept me out of Allenberry seats for a number of years – I suspect I am not alone there.
Nonetheless, this is a show well worth seeing. And hearing. SMOKEY JOE'S CAFÉ is on the Allenberry stage through October 14. For tickets. Call 717-258-3211 or visit www.allenberry.com.
Photo credit: Cindy King