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BWW Review: Joshua Bergasse Creates a Sensational New Style For the Leiber and Stoller Smash SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE

When the smash hit revue SMOKEY JOE'S CAFÉ, celebrating the pop classics of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, opened on Broadway in 1995, director Jerry Zaks staged each beloved number with snazzy show-biz slickness and glitz, suggesting the ways they might have been performed by the artists who introduced them when in concert or on television variety shows.

Smokey Joe's Cafe
Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, John Edwards,
Dwayne Cooper and Max Sangerman
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

And while director choreographer Joshua Bergasse's sensational new Off-Broadway production sure isn't lacking for snazziness, it's of a more familiar and cozy variety.

Set designer Beowulf Boritt provides a large neighborhood dive bar of exposed red brick where locals relax at wooden tables and chairs and flashing neon lights advertise the bottled brews on sale, like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life.

Members of music director Matt Oestreighcher's eight-piece band can be seen hanging out to the side and the outstanding singing and dancing ensemble members are dressed by designer Alejo Vietti primarily in nice but simple outfits a regular Joe or Jane might wear for a Saturday night out with the gang.

So despite the powerhouse voices, savvy performance skills and slick dance moves the audience is treated to throughout the 90-minute production, the feel is that we're watching a group of friends letting off steam after another hard work week. As always, there's no dialogue as the show zips from song to song, but there's a lot of interaction among the cast members as they watch their colleagues shine in the spotlight, bringing home the theme that great songs become the background music of our lives, and sometimes you can't resist the urge to imagine your own spotlight and belt out a number or two.

Leiber and Stoller began their partnership in the early 1950s, and by the decade's end were regarded among the cream of the early rock and roll eras writers, part of the steady stream of composers and lyricists who reported to work at Times Square's Brill Building each morning with the daily assignment of writing hit songs.

Their work was recorded by a diverse assortment of artists like The Coasters, Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley and Big Mama Thornton creating an eclectic catalogue of classics "On Broadway," "I'm A Woman," "Jailhouse Rock," "Yakety Yak" and "Stand By Me." They were masters of story-telling novelty songs like "Love Potion No. 9," "Charlie Brown" and "Little Egypt" and, as record producers, were instrumental in supplying high production values that framed artists of color, such as in The Drifters' powerful recording of "There Goes My Baby" and Ben E. King's beautiful "Spanish Harlem."

At the center of this production is a quartet of black men who supply gorgeous harmonies that recall the pioneering groups that preceded them; Jelani Remy, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Dwayne Cooper. Bergasse keeps the fellows moving to slick and entertaining in tandem dance steps as they glide though numbers like "Keep On Rollin'" and "Poison Ivy," clowning it up playing the old west melodrama of "Along Came Jones" and, of course, lending sleek sophistication to the streetwise anthem "On Broadway."

On his own, Remy brings down the house with a "Jailhouse Rock" that not only incorporates Elvis Presley hip-swivels, but a dazzling display of leaps and flips. Edwards gets the same reaction with his feet firmly on the ground, with his intensely dramatic "I Who Have Nothing."

Early on, the stylish dancer Dionne D. Figgins has a funny bit singing "Dance With Me" to the guys while suffering through each one's inept terpsichorean skills. She makes a divinely sexy impression in "Don Juan," playing a sugar baby with no time for a broke daddy.

Sublime belter and actor Alysha Umphress doesn't get a lot of featured time in the show's first half, but then creates a sizzling sensation, teamed with bassist Yuka Tadano, warning that she's "Trouble," shortly followed by a breathtakingly quiet and sincere "Pearl's a Singer," aching with the sadness of dreams unfulfilled.

Smokey Joe's Cafe
Emma Degerstedt, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz,
Dionne D. Figgins and Alysha Umphress
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Emma Degerstedt is sweetly funny with "Falling," a ballad of unspoken love and then breaks out with a fringe dress, wilding shaking every inch she's got for "Teach Me How To Shimmy."

Smokey-voiced Nicole Vanessa Ortiz displays gutsy power with Big Mama Thornton's original version of "Hound Dog," and soars vocally with a heartbreaking "Fools Fall In Love." Max Sangerman shines as the show's rockabilly representative, accompanying himself on guitar for "Ruby Baby" and framed by the rest of the guys for "Loving You."

Whether these songs are a fond part of your memories, or if each new tune is a fresh discovery, this wonderfully realized production of SMOKEY JOE'S CAFÉ will send you out to 42nd Street humming a full medley of them. What a fun, fun night out.

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From This Author Michael Dale