Let me get my prejudice out in the open from the start: I love the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, from the mellow Spanish Harlem to the high-powered Jailhouse Rock to the quirky Charlie Brown and the heartbreaking I (Who Have Nothing) and everything in between. They're the songs of my youth that have stayed in my head (and feet) ever since.
So I'm delighted when a crackerjack cast of singer/dancers does such a fine job with Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller that I want to get up and sing and dance with them, and that's pretty much how I felt at opening night of the show at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson.
Rumor has it that Show Palace co-owner Tommy Mara, whose theater connections run long and deep, had a big hand in finding many of the cast members. If so, he did a splendid job. From long, tall Josh Hayes, whose deep bass and expressive face add just the right touch to so many L&S songs — Little Egypt, Charlie Brown, Yakety Yak — to the lovely Sapir Breier and long-legged Hannah Timm, spunky Joya Richmond and alluring Crystin Gilmore, multi-talented Anthony Wright, charming Gian Raffaele DiCostanzo, energetic Keith Allen and Show Palace favorite Patrick Marshall Jr. (remember him as the prissy Jacob in La Cage aux Folles?), each versatile cast member brings something special to this show.
Anyone who enjoys and appreciates rhythm and blues, gospel, ballads or rock 'n' roll will find something, if not everything, to enjoy in this two-hour mix of songs, with snappy choreography by the Patel Conservatory's Susan Downey, spot-on direction by Matthew Belopavlovich (The Great American Trailer Park Musical) and music direction by Anthony Wright.
Smokey Joe's is a collection of self-contained songs. But, even so, the grouping of the songs creates vignettes and themes throughout the show. Act 1 sets a nostalgic mood as the cast sings Neighborhood while gathered around and on set designer/master carpenter Todd Everest's re-creation of a city fire escape, then segues into Allen doing Young Blood and Timm's graceful singing and dancing to Falling, followed by DiCostanzo's finger-snapping Ruby Baby. Later, he's a ringer for Elvis in Jailhouse Rock.
Marshall's smooth Dance with Me takes a quick comic turn when Richmond emerges from the wings to boldly pursue each of the fellows backing him up. Marshall gets a chance to show his appealing singing and dancing chops in Act 2's Spanish Harlem with Gilmore. Gilmore takes the spotlight as she stalks around the stage to the gold-digger's proclamation, Don Juan, the brush-off of a rich man gone broke, and the sex-charged Some Cats Know.
Wright shows his considerable versatility striding around the stage in Searchin' , as the comical, gutter-dwelling drunk in D.W. Washburn, but, most of all, in the emotional I (Who Have Nothing), where he gives it his all, with his voice breaking either with passion or with over-exertion as he falls to his knees in supplication.
Breier shines in the bitter, staccato I Keep Forgettin' and the melancholy Pearl's a Singer (one of my personal favorites). Richmond's Act 1 rendition of Fools Fall in Love is moving, but she wails it out in Act 2, giving it an altogether different feel. She's a standout in the gospel rocking Saved, as the hand-clapping, soul-saving, baptizing, robe-wearing B.J.
Marvelous moments are provided by the entire cast in the big production numbers like Baby That Is Rock & Roll and the high-energy Yakety Yak, as well as the paean to bright lights, On Broadway, done by Wright, Marshall, Hayes, and Allen, decked out in iridescent gray suits, green satin shirts and uptown attitudes.
Smokey Joe's ran on Broadway for almost five years after its debut in February 1995, was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Musical, won the 1996 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album, and has become a favorite of regional theaters and touring companies around the world. And it's easy to see why. It's easy, breezy, entertaining and fun, all at the same time.