BWW Review: SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE at Ogunquit Playhouse
There's everything to love in Smokey Joe's Cafe the first show of the Ogunquit Playhouse's 86th season.
The original production of Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller made history as Broadway's longest running musical revue and earned a Grammy Award and multiple Tony Award nominations. The show celebrates the best songs of the legendary songwriting duo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and their memorable tunes that climbed the Billboard charts and provided astounding hits for the likes of Elvis Presley, The Coasters, and The Drifters.
The Ogunquit Playhouse is rolling out a revitalized version of the show that will play at the iconic theater before heading for an Off-Broadway run in New York City. With direction and choreography by Emmy Award-winner and Tony Award-nominee Josh Bergasse, the show is a non-stop trip down memory lane with classic hits more recognizable to the Greatest Generation and retired Baby Boomers than it does to contemporary audiences raised on Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber.
The show features nearly 40 hits that run the gamut from rock and roll, to poignant ballads, and on to songs that are silly and fun. The more popular tunes include "Stand by Me," "I'm a Woman," "Fools Fall in Love," "On Broadway," "Yakety Yak," "Pearl's a Singer," "There Goes My Baby," "Love Potion #9," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Spanish Harlem." The show is like a juke box that never ends.
And in the style of a juke box musical, there's no plot and no dialogue. Instead, audiences are treated to a string of dynamic performances that run for about 90 minutes with no intermission.
While some performers stand out in various numbers, the show is truly an ensemble piece. There's no single star here; every performer shines.
The cast features Broadway and Off-Broadway veterans including, Dwayne Cooper, who appeared on Broadway in Motown and Hairspray, Emma Degerstedt who was most recently seen in the lead role in the Off-Broadway musical, Desperate Measures; John Edwards, whose credits include the Broadway production and National Tour of Jersey Boys. Dionne D. Figgins, who began her career as a member of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and has appeared on Broadway in Hot Feet, Memphis, Leap of Faith, and Motown.
Also joining the cast are Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, who made her theatre debut as the leading lady in the Off-Broadway parody, Spamilton; Kyle Taylor Parker, who was most recently seen on NBC's "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert," Jelani Remy, who most recently starred as "Simba" in Broadway's The Lion King; Max Sangerman, who starred in the first National tour of The Lightning Thief, and Alysha Umphress, who performed on Broadway in On the Town, American Idiot, and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.
Figgins and Remy are sultry, sexy, and sizzling in their "Spanish Harlem." I could feel the heat off the stage from ten rows back. Umphress has one of the best moments in the show with a spellbinding, "Pearl's a Singer" while Degerstedt and Sangerman perform a sassy "Teach Me How to Shimmy." Parker and the gents do justice to "There Goes My Baby," Remy does a wild rendition of "Jailhouse Rock," and the women dominate the stage with a lively "I'm A Women." Cooper is great for comic relief and a low singing note that seems humanly impossible to produce.
Edwards led the cast in a stirring "Stand By Me," made more significant by the song being performed by a gospel choir at the recent royal wedding.
Perhaps the most notable updating for the show is that it has an authentic café on the set. With a faux brick and wooden interior, it looks and feels like a neighborhood café. The set extends out over the audience which gives it an intimate feeling. There's incredible detail in the café signage and there's multiple levels in which to perform thanks to two winding staircases and a second level balcony. (You won't believe the number of collectible radios that adorn the set!) The set is among the most intricate and breathtaking that I've seen on the Ogunquit stage.
Here's a shout out to scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Alejo Vietti, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, sound design by Peter Fitzgerald, original vocal arrangements by Chapman Roberts, and orchestrations by Steve Margoshes and Sonny Paladino.
Much credit needs to be given to Executive Artistic Director, Bradford Kenney, for the success of the Ogunquit Playhouse season that now extends beyond the summer season and into the fall. Great things have happened during his time at the helm of the treasured theater.
For info, go to ogunquitplayhouse.org.
Photo credits: Joan Marcus and Gary Ng