BWW Reviews: Logan's Concept Makes SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE More Than Just a Revue

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's songs are so much a part of our lives, so universal in their ubiquity that you may not even know who wrote them. But rest assured, they are likely among your all-time favorites. Now, thanks to the sparkling, imaginative Studio Tenn revival of Smokey Joe's Café-the Tony Award-nominated musical revue that collects some 39 (although a couple were cut, so we'll place the number at 37 for this production) of those terrific Leiber and Stoller songs into one smooth, entertaining package- you can revel in the music (heck, you can even sing along) and set your feet to tapping out the rhythms of your life, expressed so evocatively by director Matt Logan's eight-member cast.

Logan, who not only directs but also designs Studio Tenn's critically acclaimed shows, sets the revue in the eponymously named Smokey Joe's Café, a fictional street corner dive set right on the stage of the historic Franklin Theater (there's even a full bar that's open to patrons before the show and during intermission), which provides the venue for a reunion of "Shimmy's Shakes," a group of friends who are gathered together to celebrate their enduring friendships and relationships. It's a brilliant decision on Logan's part because it builds a framework-sans dialogue-for the performance of those timeless Leiber and Stoller songs. This theatrical conceit also allows for a more organic delivery of the songs, each one evoking memories for the onstage characters and for audiences, providing structure for a show that so obviously needs it in order to appeal to a wider swath of fans.

Stylistically and technically, Logan's vision for Smokey Joe's Café is as stunning as all of his earlier sets for shows such as A Christmas Carol, The Miracle Worker and The Sound of Music, and thanks to technical director Mitch White (who, according to executive producer Jake Speck, built it all by himself) they transform the minuscule Franklin Theatre stage completely. With his customary attention to detail, the place comes alive even before Logan's eight remarkable performers take the stage, and with Stephen Moss' stunning lighting design, the setting is made even more real, adding shadings and colors to provide ambience and lighting wizardry to make the cavalcade of songs concert-worthy. Design-wise, Smokey Joe's Café is an eye-popping visual delight.

Musically, thanks to that aforementioned ensemble of performers and to musical director/conductor Stephen Kummer and his band, Smokey Joe's Café provides audiences with a feast of memorable songs performed by a capable cast, some of whom are well-known on local stages, others newcomers we're delighted to welcome to Music City.

Melinda Doolittle, the Belmont University alumna who was robbed-robbed, I tell ya!-of the American Idol title only to become a pop culture icon (if she's good enough for "Old Christine," she's certainly good enough for me) and recording industry bright light, leads the cast with an easy, jazz-flavored, gospel-tinged bravura performance. She leads "Saved" with religious fervor and showstopping zeal and her "Fools Fall In Love" is gorgeous, sumptuous and beautifully rendered.

Doolittle is joined onstage by Laura Matula, the local musical theater and cabaret star who somehow miraculously manages to show off even more versatility than we've seen before, displaying an appealingly fun side to her well-known serious focus. "Don Juan" provides her with a showcase for both her vocal chops and her tremendous comedic abilities.

Ryan Greenawalt, another Belmont alum, who starred earlier this year in Street Theatre Company's production of Jason Robert Brown's The Last 5 Years, and is given the chance to show off his own talents to greater effect in this musical revue. "Teach Me How to Shimmy" is one of the show's musical highlights.

Libby Hodges, another Nashville native-but one to whom we are first introduced in Smokey Joe's Café-takes the spotlight for a scorching, torchy performance of "Pearl's A Singer" (which, I must admit, is one of my very favorites from the Leiber and Stoller catalogue). It's one of the songs you might not first remember, but thanks to Hodges' superb performance you will count it among your favorites from now on.

Harvey A. Hubert, who's from Kansas City, Missouri, shows off his deep, resonant voice throughout the show, performing with charm and gusto (his duet with Doolittle on "You're the Boss" is a sure winner), while John-Mark McGaha (who is from Birmingham) shows off his crystal-clear top notes in fine form and his comic sensibilities to perfection in "Charlie Brown."

Although the wealth of talent assembled onstage by Logan, who is given able support from choreographer Emily Tello in staging the numbers that comprise the show, is indeed staggering, there are two performers who very nearly steal the show right out from under the rest of the cast. Amanda Sudano Ramirez, who grew up in Nashville, and her husband, AbneR Ramirez-who make up the music duo of JOHNNYSWIM-will absolutely knock your socks off! Their performance of "Love Me/Don't" is exhilaratingly dramatic, awesomely conceived and exquisitely performed. Amanda shows off her innate musical skill and amazing range throughout the revue, while Abner stops the show in Act Two with a performance of "I (Who Have Nothing)" that is as good as anything we've ever heard in a town where good singers and consummate performers are a dime a dozen.

While it's easy to describe Leiber and Stoller as the team of tunesmiths who provided Elvis Presley with some of his best-known hits ("Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" are but two of The King's signature songs), their songwriting prowess is evident in all of their songs, but perhaps most significantly through "I'm a Woman" (performed with fiery passion by the women of the ensemble) "Ruby Baby," "Kansas City," "Love Potion No. 9," "On Broadway" (which allows the men to shine) and "Stand By Me" (which closes the show with heartfelt emotional power). If you think you're unfamiliar with their work, you simply need to buy a ticket to Smokey Joe's Café to be reminded that they very possibly have provided the soundtrack of your life.

  • Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller. Words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Directed and designed by Matt Logan. Musical direction by Stephen Kummer. Choregraphy by Emily Tello. Presented by Studio Tenn at The Franklin Theater, Franklin. For details, go to www.StudioTenn.com; for reservations, call (615)538-2076.


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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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