Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photos by Eric Chazankin
A Real Blast – From the Past
A diverse bunch of lively neighborhood kids gets together to celebrate love and life in 1950s America, to a soundtrack of smoking-hot rock’n’roll, soul, and rhythm and blues. Every song tells a story, and every singer has a story to tell. The musical revue “Smoky Joe’s Café” at 6th Street Playhouse is a cavalcade of 39 classic songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, songwriters that together changed American culture and history with their groundbreaking music. Accompanied by a groovin’ seven-piece band led by music director Mateo Dillaway, 6th Street presents one rowdy crowd-pleaser of a show. Timeless pop hits like “Young Blood”, “Searchin’”, “Poison Ivy”, “There Goes My Baby” and “Stand by Me” inspire foot-stomping and dancing in the aisles.
Conceived by musical theatre veterans Stephen Helper, Jack Viertel and Otis Sallid, “Smokey Joe’s Café” had its premiere at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles in 1994. It went on to become the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history, nominated for seven Tonys in 1995. The show’s pretext is to tell the stories of these kids from the neighborhood, but using song instead of dialogue. There’s no plot, no story to speak of, just a string of sparkling tunes that pop up, one by one, to be interpreted by the performers, each with their own distinct character to play. This lack of structure and storyline allows a production the opportunity to explore and challenge their talent, and to craft their very own “Smokey Joe’s Café”.
At 6th Street, the cast and crew grabbed this opportunity with both hands and ran with it, creating a fun, entertaining show. The performers consist of five men and four women, each with their own magnetic stage presence, set in motion by the great choreography and stage direction of Alise Gerard, who provides for dramatic arcs and comedic escapades within several numbers. The performers’ remarkable emotional range, phrasing and interpretation of the lyrics are guided by vocal director Janis Dunson Wilson.
Zac Schuman, with his soaring, pitch-perfect tenor, most notable in “There Goes My Baby”, and Mitch Thomas’ deep, melodic voice that booms like low thunder in numbers like “Keep on Rollin”, are standouts in a group of truly outstanding singers that include Marc Assad, Dell Parker and Peter Warden. Their thrilling 5-part harmony – thanks in large part to the balancing effect of Thomas’ reverberating bass — induces goosebumps and shrieks from the audience. The hyperkinetic Warden practically steals every number he’s in, which is most of them. At times he seems to be channeling Stan Laurel, other times Pee-Wee Herman, but in any case he’s clearly an audience favorite with his engaging vocals and rubbery reflexes.
As a total performance package, Emily Somple delivers star quality with a sultry assurance and throaty voice showcased in numbers like “Falling” and “Trouble”. Each of the other ladies is a formidable talent as well: Amy Webber, Kelsey Meille Byrne and Olivia Chavez offer unique personalities and vocal qualities, individually and as a group. This gives a nice texture to the overall production. Highlights of the show include Webber’s powerful yet wistful “Pearl’s a Singer”, and Byrne’s steamy “Some Cats Know”. The rousing ensemble closing number to Act One, “Saved”, is led by Chavez.
Director and choreographer Alise Gerard brings a lively, fresh spirit to the proceedings, coming less than a year after her sensational debut as choreographer for 6th Street’s smash hit “The Marvelous Wonderettes”, followed by “Great American Trailer Park Musical” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Unfortunately, this will be her last show for 6th Street, at least for awhile – she’s taking her talented self to new digs in New York City. Santa Rosa’s loss is Broadway’s gain.
Even though it seems to run out of gas near the end, only to come roaring back for the finale, this infectious show makes true believers of all within eye-and-earshot, with cheers and whoops of appreciation throughout. After all is said and done – even with good lighting, sound and costumes – it’s the performers that make “Smokey Joe’s Café” an exhilarating, spirit-lifting experience.
When: Now through February 10, 2013
8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Sundays
2:00 p.m. Saturday, February 9
Tickets: $15 to $35 (reserved seating)
Location: GK Hardt Theater at 6th Street Playhouse
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA