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Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE?

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE?

The new production of Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller, officially opened on Sunday, July 22.

The show is directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, who brings new life to more than 30 classic songs including "Stand by Me," "I'm a Woman," "Hound Dog," "Fools Fall In Love," "On Broadway," "Yakety Yak," "Pearl's a Singer," "Treat Me Nice," "There Goes My Baby," "Love Potion #9," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Spanish Harlem."

Smokey Joe's Cafe features Dwayne Cooper (Motown, Hairspray), Emma Degerstedt(Desperate Measures Off-Broadway), John Edwards (Jersey Boys), Dionne D. Figgins(Hot Feet, Memphis), Nicole Vanessa Ortiz (Spamilton Off-Broadway), Kyle Taylor Parker (Kinky Boots, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Jelani Remy (Disney's The Lion King), Max Sangerman (Blue Man Group Off-Broadway), and Alysha Umphress (On The Town, American Idiot).

Let's see what the critics are saying...


Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Times: Something about most of these numbers feels factory-made, as if the artists had been pressed into a creative mold rather than entrusted to interpret the songs anew and let their own personalities come through. The production errs on the side of caution, and that is an error, indeed. When Leiber and Stoller's songs first came out of the radio, sung by Elvis Presley or the Drifters or Ben E. King, they may have been produced to the hilt, but there was passion in them.

There are moments in the production when fresh energy breaks through, though, and they often occur when the show pulls back and goes for simplicity. Dionne D. Figgins and Dwayne Cooper infuse "You're the Boss" with a teasing romance and sexual heat, and "Loving You" is a gorgeously unadorned display of doo-wop harmonies. Nicole Vanessa Ortiz is a terrifically cool customer in her dry take on "Hound Dog," while Alysha Umphress is at her best with the mournful, country-flavored "Pearl's a Singer."

Donna Herman, New York Theatre Guide: The women too were incredible and my only bone to pick is that they weren't used as a group more, as the men were. I kept waiting for the women to do a number together and when it finally came in the form of "I'm A Woman," I wasn't disappointed. Which is not to say that they didn't have their own numbers. Dionne D. Figgins doing "Don Juan" had the audience eating out of her hand. Nicole Vanessa Ortiz's "Hound Dog" made it clear that the song was meant to be sung by a woman. Sorry, Elvis. And Alysha Umphress' voice was a revelation every time she opened her mouth to sing. From the bluesy, sultry "Trouble" to the wistful "Pearl's A Singer," I couldn't wait for her to sing again. And while Emma Degerstedt is a fine singer, I will never forget her dancing in "Teach Me How To Shimmy." That woman shimmied vigorously for over two minutes straight. Heck, I was winded when she was done.

Deb Miller, DC Metro Theater Arts: Beowulf Boritt's inviting bi-level set creates the perfect ambiance for the nostalgic gathering, evoking an intimate mood of congeniality with its warm brick walls and aged wooden bar, tables, and bentwood chairs. It also provides touches of color with its bright neon signs, and ample space for the animated ensemble to move up, down, and around its metal balcony and spiral staircases, enhancing the show's never-ending vibrancy. Alejo Vietti's eye-catching costumes and Jeff Croiter's redolent lighting lend visual support to the musical narratives, reflecting their shifting moods and times of day.

Suzanna Bowling, Times Square Chronicles: Loaded with talent, this cast of five guys and four women sing in harmony, with perfect musicianship. First up to impress is Max Sangerman with "Ruby Baby". He returns to sing the iconic "Loving You". Then Jelani Remy does an off the charts "Jailhouse Rock." Dionne D. Figgins is the ultimate gold digger in "Don Juan", as she brings a lot of the comedic choreography to life. Alysha Umphress, is remembered for her work with director/ choreographer Joshua Bergasse on On the Town, croons "I Keep Forgetting" with enough runs to keep you dizzily thrilled. She also impresses on "Trouble" and "Pearl's a Singer". Dwayne Cooper, brings his low bass and his comedic timing to "Yakety-Yak" ("Don't talk back") and "Charlie Brown" ("He's a clown"). Emma Degerstedt shows she can "Teach Me How To Shimmy" with fringe unable to stand still, but she looks like the girl next door instead of a seductive thing. Nicole Vanessa Ortiz belt's out "Hound Dog" and has you completely understanding those lyrics. Ms. Oritz also impresses on "Fool's Fall In Love" and ends the show with a rousing "Saved". Kyle Taylor Parker makes "There Goes My Baby" and "Love Potion #9" seductive and heart pounding. John Edwards brings the house down with his powerful rendition of "I Who Have Nothing."

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: Highlights are legion. The one-two punch of "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown" features the performers bounding into the aisles as if the stage couldn't contain them. "On Broadway" pays homage to its original performers, The Drifters, with the four male singers clad in flashy jackets. "Loving You" is performed as classic doo-wop, while "Spanish Harlem" incorporates a flamenco-style dance number into the mix. Umphress infuses "Pearl's a Singer" with a heart-stopping soulfulness, Ortiz delivers "Hound Dog" with arresting swagger, Edwards brings the house down with a powerful "I Who Have Nothing," and Cooper uses his impossibly deep bass voice to amusing effect in several of the ensemble numbers.

Thom Geier, The Wrap: A talented cast of five guys and four women segue from song to song without pausing for dialogue, and restrict dramatization to the characters in the songs themselves - from nightclub singer Pearl to hoochy-koochy dancer Little Egypt to the county jail inmate who narrates the Elvis classic "Jailhouse Rock."

There's not a weak link in the cast, though there are standouts: Nicole Vanessa Ortiz and Kyle Taylor Parker are classic belters who can let it rip on big notes. Jelani Remy and Dionne D. Figgins are the most spirited of the dancers, bringing a real energy to the often witty choreography of Joshua Bergasse, who also directs. (He turns "Dance With Me" into a comic gem with Figgins struggling through the left-footed male cast until she finds her true match in Remy.)

Michael Sommers, New York Stage Review: The strategic positioning and pacing of these three dozen numbers is astute: The show gets off to a friendly, easygoing start with "Neighborhood" and then song by song gradually increases in intensity to reach a midway crest of excitement with "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown," then a blazing "Dueling Pianos" instrumental by the band, and finally "On Broadway." That evergreen is keenly delivered by Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Jelani Remy, whose smooth moves and close harmonies provide the production's strong r & b musical backbone.

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