BWW Reviews: Arena Stage Offers Up Crowd Pleasing SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE
There's a lot to like in Arena Stage's production of Smokey Joe's Café, featuring known and lesser known songs about love, human connection, and more by the dynamic songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. A strong cast of nine singers perform their rock and rhythm and blues hits of the 1950s and 60s like "Fools Fall in Love," "Hound Dog," Jailhouse Rock," "I (Who Have Nothing)," and the iconic "Stand By Me," with vigor, verve, and endless amounts of energy. Rick Fox's seven-piece band is the perfect complement for the vocals and only amps up the excitement level.
The revue style plotless musical - which found success on Broadway in the 1990s and garnered several Tony Award nominations - is the kind of crowd pleasing show that's likely to hit a chord with those looking to simply have a fun night out. At Arena, as directed by Randy Johnson, it does just that. Even as unfortunate sound troubles plagued the opening night performance - resulting in unintelligible lyrics in much of Act One and an instance in Act Two where the charming Michael J. Mainwaring's mic experienced technical issues - the music and the performers offered up a winning combination if one is to go by the audience's reaction. A reaction - I might add - that's likely to be replicated in other performances throughout the run because it's just that kind of production.
As performed by the endlessly talented E. Faye Butler, "Fools Fall in Love," proves to be the definite highlight of the night. Her rich and incredibly supple voice that's equally equipped to sing jazz, rock, and softer ballads is the perfect fit for the song. I can listen to her for hours and she alone is reason enough to see this production. Her voice is one for the ages.
Others also make an impression.
Strong singer-dancer Ashley Blair Fitzgerald and the equally talented Kara-Tameika Watkins bring a certain level of intensity to "Trouble" which also offers one of Parker Esse's strongest choreographic moments of the night. I remember seeing Fitzgerald in the recent tour of Come Fly Away and recall that she's the kind of dancer you can't help but watch at every moment no matter whom else is onstage. That's the case here as well, and she demonstrates her considerable vocal chops, which are just as good as her dancing.
Levi Kreis, best known for his Tony Award-winning performance in Million Dollar Quartet, hits the mark with "Treat Me Nice" and "Jailhouse Rock." He has charisma in spades and the vocal skills to match. To say that he can certainly work a room would be an understatement. Nova Y. Payton's piercing and unmistakable vocals - which have served her well in many a production at Signature Theatre - are also put to good use throughout the performance, resulting in a strong Arena Stage debut. What she often times lacks in emotional connection to the lyrics, she more than makes up for with her vocal range and power. Her vocals shine nicely in a jazzy rendition of "Kansas City" with E. Faye Butler and Levi Kreis, which was my other favorite number of the night. Austin Colby's strong tenor voice - also a regular fixture at Signature Theatre - is also showcased very well in his lovely rendition of "Spanish Harlem."
Other vocal moments didn't work quite as well for me. The vocal blend that Jay Adriel, Austin Colby, Michael J. Mainwaring, and Stephawn P. Stephens achieved in the numerous male ensemble numbers in Act One ("Young Blood," and "Keep on Rollin'," in particular) wasn't the cleanest I ever heard on opening night, made worse by some diction issues that were probably also not helped by the unfortunate sound issues. The harmonies were much stronger in Act Two. Perhaps the harmonies will become tighter as the run progresses or I caught them on an off night.
Other problematic issues are more conceptual. Although the band is a key component of such a music-heavy show and performs in a stellar way at Arena, the decision to place the musicians in the center of the stage - taking up most of the space, I might add - means that there is only so much Randy Johnson could do staging wise. While not everything has to be staged center - particularly in the Fichlander, which offers a "theatre in the square" kind of experience - space constraints mean that numbers are often staged in the same way with little variance, particularly the ones that feature more than one cast member. Whether performing in the aisles of the theatre, on the edges of the stage, or in the corners, the singers do give it their all even if it's not particularly interesting to watch.
Minimal sets and projections (Caite Hevner Kemp) don't really make for a visually interesting experience or do very well in establishing the concept for the show, but at the very least they don't pull focus from the music, which is the star. Appropriate lighting (Dan Ozminkowski) design choices add to the concert-like atmosphere at Arena. Although I found Ilona Somogyi's costume design choices to be all over the map period-wise, the rich color palate she uses is rather pleasing to the eye.
Despite my quibbles, there is a place for shows like Smokey Joe's Café in the Arena season even if it wasn't necessarily my cup of tea. This one offers some great singing and if it introduces theatre to audiences that might otherwise not venture into such venues, then there's something to be said about that. It offers a fun time and one can't ask for much more than that.
Running Time: About two hours including an intermission.
Smokey Joe's Café runs through June 8, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, located at 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.
Photo: Cast of Smokey Joe's Café; by Teresa Wood.