BWW Reviews: The Keeton Theatre Takes a Sentimental Journey With Entertaining and Engaging SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE

When Smokey Joe's Café debuted on Broadway in 1995, it was met with what might be described rather generously as "mixed reviews," yet the little show that could went on to show all those snarky critics who was actually boss by running five years on the Great White Way (and winning a Grammy Award for best cast album in 1996). Those withering reviews notwithstanding, this is one that will most certainly buck the trend.

Now onstage at The Larry Keeton Theatre, in a winning production directed by Ginger Newman and choreographed by Kate Adams-Johnson, Smokey Joe's Café offers audiences one of the best nights of theater they'll ever have the pleasure of attending. Seriously! In fact, my love of the musical revue-which features 39 songs written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who provided much of the soundtrack for the lives led in the middle of the last century-is almost stupefyingly of the adoring variety. Truthfully, I can't pinpoint exactly what it is about Smokey Joe's Café that I love so much, but alas, there it is: I love the show without question (hell, I'd marry it if we could get a marriage license down here in the South) and I am particularly in love with the rendition served up by Newman, Adams-Johnson and company out in Donelson.

Performed by a wonderfully engaging and committed ensemble of singers who can act (on opening weekend, an ailing Ashley Bishop was replaced by not one, but two talented women, as Newman and Adams-Johnson split the responsibilities of her role-but Bishop is expected back for the second weekend of performances), there is no through-line to be found anywhere in this rather slight musical, yet it is thoroughly accessible and it is certain to delight you, regardless of your age.

Certainly, Smokey Joe's Café is likely to be embraced most warmly by baby boomers, but the energy and, well, pizzazz of Newman's cast guarantees that all audiences will be won over by the Leiber and Stoller catalogue of songs that are so much a part of the American songbook. Lush, romantic ballads are paired enticingly with pop standards, rock and roll and rhythm and blues, resulting in a musical program that's filled with songs you know, some you probably sing in the shower, a few you don't know and others that will surprise you.

Framed by "In the Neighborhood," a sentimental treatise on memories and reminiscences that was never a big hit for the hit-making team of songwriters, the barest of plotlines would suggest that you're going on a sentimental journey of the mid-20th century-and in many ways, Smokey Joe's Café does take you on such a trip down memory lane, but still and all the revue is primarily a collection of terrific songs that are sure to set your feet tapping.

Adams-Johnson's choreography and the pacing of Newman's sprightly direction ensure a quickly moving songfest, peppered with good humor that will make you laugh (I'm looking directly at you, Patrick Kramer and Bakari King), some genuine moments that will tug at your heartstrings (the spotlight falls on Carol Quinn and Stanley Stewart for that), and some numbers that are just dazzling (thank you Jonathan Perry, Jamie London, Caitlin Elese Williams and Elliott Winston Robinson).

Watching how easily Kramer manipulates the audience-with the arch of an eyebrow he inspires hearty laughter and much applause-and how King's stage presence completely dominates the stage is like a master class in musical theater. And as singers, gentle readers, they both succeed quite well. Quinn and Stewart, both of whom are new to me onstage, have what is perhaps the revue's most successful pairing with the hauntingly beautiful medley of "Love Me/Don't" and Quinn later nails her big Act Two number, "Pearl's A Singer," one of my favorite Leiber and Stoller songs.

Quinn joins London and Perry for a rousing first act performance of "Kansas City," and London positively nails her performance of "Fools Fall in Love" with graceful, elegant ease that will make you look at her from an entirely new and different perspective. No matter how many times you've seen her onstage before, Jamie London effortlessly claims her star with her impeccable performance of a clutch of Leiber and Stoller songs in Smokey Joe's Café.

Perry is at his charming best in "Teach Me How to Shimmy," "Ruby Baby" and "Jailhouse Rock," showing off his tremendous versatility in the process. A real song-and-dance man, he has an easy charm that underscores each of his numbers with a vitality that is palpable. Williams, looking ever so gorgeous and moving with confidence, shows off her own estimable talents with "Fallin'" and "Trouble" in the first act, following them up with the ladies' performance of "I'm a Woman" in Act Two. Robinson's second act performance of "You're the Boss" is terrific and he more than holds his own in the number, which is no easy task considering he was paired with Newman, Nashville's best exemplar of the word "diva."

With Bishop out sick on opening weekend, Newman and Adams-Johnson split her workload, delivering some memorable moments in the process. The gorgeous Adams-Johnson sings and dances her heart out to great effect, while the sexy and sultry Newman proves her complete command of the stage every time she stepped onto it. In fact, Newman may be the only woman in Music City who can win applause and hoots and hollers from the audience by making the simplest of gestures. She is, without danger of exaggeration, a force of nature.

Newman's spot-on direction, made even more potent by her respect for the material that she has to work with and for her actors, is coupled marvelously with Adams-Johnson's choreography and both women and the entire ensemble are given superb support from the four-member band that gives the Leiber and Stoller musical score its due. With the fabulous Lee Druce on piano, with Bob Marinelli on bass, Ed Greene on drums and Ben Graves and Dan Hagan splitting the chores on guitar, saxophone and harmonica, you'll be hard-pressed to hear a better performance.

The production is given further solid support by set designer Brad Kamer, lighting designer Kelly Landry, costumer designer Laura Higgins and sound designer Rudd Lance, and Bakari King provides yeoman support as assistant to both the director and the choreographer.

While not a perfect production (Jerry Leiber's last name is misspelled in the program, for example) and a couple of rocky moments, The Keeton's Smokey Joe's Café is certain to engage and entertain, transporting audiences back to their own neighborhood, filled with songs and stories, memories and recollections. You owe it to yourself to make the trip.

Smokey Joe's Café. Words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Directed by Ginger Newman. Choreographed by Kate Adams-Johnson. Presented by The Larry Keeton Theatre, Donelson. Through April 21. For details, go to www.thelarrykeetontheatre.org. For reservations, call (615) 883-8375.


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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis