Smokey Joe’s Café, currently at MusicalFare, has been in business for more than 20 years and has lost none of its vitality. It's a swinging, lively walk down memory lane featuring 39 songs by the prolific team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, creators of such early rock 'n' roll standards as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog,” as well as rhythm and blues tunes like “Kansas City.” The Broadway cast won Best Musical Show Album at the Grammy’s in 1996. Major chops here.
This is a musical revue with no story and the songs are no particular order. They roll over you one after another for two hours with one intermission. Some you will know and some you probably will not. Onward…
First, the band. Musical Director Theresa Quinn has put together a cadre of outstanding musicians, including her own amazing work on piano. She pounds it out with Dave Siegfried on bass, Larry Albert on guitar, Rodney Harper on drums, and Jim Runfola on reeds. They are the soul of the show. Their expertise, incredible rhythms, and individual spots raise the level of the production.
Then, Director John Fredo has put together a diverse and talented cast to showcase these famous and not-as-famous songs. A caveat: at times voices seemed to get lost, either from sound issues, or the singer running out of steam. And there was an issue of too much mike at times that led to some shrill tones. That said, this is a very entertaining and delightful evening of song that will have you toe-tapping and wanting to sing along even if you try not to. You'll either annoy the people around you or they'll give in to the temptation, too.
So, some highlights. Lorenzo Shawn Parnell has a comic Elvis turn with “Treat Me Nice,” his right leg in spasms he can’t control. That segues into Zoe Scruggs’ tough “Hound Dog,” as she lets him know what’s what. She is terrific in “Saved,” belting out the gospel tune with the entire cast as backup. Mr. Parnell steals the show with the little-known “I (Who Have Nothing).” His longing and desperation are heartbreakingly palpable as he begs his would-be love to choose him. Ben Michael Moran, always so animated, uses his baritone to great effect on many of the songs, so funny in Yakety Yak, and so sexy in “You’re the Boss” with Victoria Perez, and a hoot in "Don Juan" with Nicole Marrale Cimato. The women, Ms. Scruggs, Ms. Perez, Ms. Marrale Cimato, and Ms. Roberts, do a great “I’m a Woman,” each taking a verse of the song in her capable hands. Ms. Marrale Cimato has all the moves in “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” wearing a sexy white fringed dress. Brian Brown fronts the comic “Love Potion #9” in good style. Marc Sacco belts out “Jailhouse Rock” with the backup cast. And last, but certainly not least, Dudney Joseph, Jr. sings the sweet and pleading “Love Me” as a duet with Ms. Robert’s “Don’t.” Oh, and “Stand by Me” closes the show in rousing form, sung partially in Spanish, courtesy of Ms. Perez.
I could go on about the tunes, but the Choreography, also by John Fredo, deserves its due. It is so much fun--so frisky and energetic, and well-timed, and well-done by the cast. They have it down, and it is a pleasure to watch their often (but not limited to) Motown-like moves. “On Broadway,” with the men in silver suits (courtesy of Costume Designer Kari Drozd), is first-rate. And so is… Well, you get the picture.
I grew up with this music, and while most of the kids, myself included, neither knew nor cared who wrote it, we loved dancing to it in Bishop Timon’s gym on Friday nights, and in dimly lit basements all over South Buffalo on Saturdays, jitterbugging and slow dancing, laughing, flirting, and singing all the tunes. A blast from the past, indeed.
Smokey Joe’s Café brings back memories for those of a certain age and is a master class in early rock 'n' roll for the younger crowd. As done by the talented people at MusicalFare, it is a delightful evening for those of any age.
Smokey Joe's Cafe
(ends Mar 11th)