REVIEW: Where There’s SLT’s ‘Smokey Joe’s Café,’ There’s Fire

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Spartanburg Little Theatre ends the company’s Mainstage season with the ultimate song-and-dance show “Smokey Joe’s Café.” And folks this one is a real crowd-pleaser: polished choreography, top-notch musicality and a wholly-inspired evening of entertainment.

Showcasing nearly 40 rock and roll, rhythm and blues and even beach music tunes from the 1950s and 60s by legendary songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, “Smokey Joe’s Café” still holds the record as the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history.

There is no storyline in “Smokey Joe’s Café” so it’s staged as a concert. But in the spirit of a great music show, director and choreographer April Kibbe tells a story in most every song from the delightful and welcoming opening number ”Neighborhood” to some of the mega-hits that Leiber and Stoller penned and everyone knows such as “Stand By Me” and “Jailhouse Rock.”

Five men (Austin Fowler, Adam Sanders, Cooper Wolfe, John Garrison and B.J. Hollis) and five women (Mariana Bracciale, Dawn Byington, Beverly Clowney, Samantha Hood and Danielle Oden) blaze through the Leiber and Stoller songbook with impeccable vocal blending “Kansas City.”

Sanders, who also starred in the 2008 SLT production of this revue, shines brightly and his comfort level with the material pays off handsomely for the Chapman crowd: “Stay Awhile” is a somber duet he performs with Music Director LeRoy Kennedy at the keyboard, while “Treat Me Nice” is well, divine.  

But it’s the hobo humor in the peculiar “D.W. Washburn” (a Top 20 hit for The Monkees) where Sanders warms our hearts as his character (in rags)  waxes about being fine in the gutter with his bottle of wine.

The amazing Hollis jams in “Kansas City” with Clowney and Byington; and again projects smooth stylings with Byington as he is begging on his knees in “Love Me/Don’t.” All I can say about Hollis is that he never gets enough stage time. When will SLT present “The B.J. Hollis” show?

The ladies demonstrate their seductive and gender power in “I’m a Woman” but Clowney reigns as Queen Bey of “Smokey Joe’s Café”: Her Etta James persona in “Kansas City,” her growl in “Hound Dog,” the beautiful “Fools Fall In Love,” and she even takes us to Church in the gospel-infused “Saved” in the act one finale. Brava Beverly!

Garrison leads on at least two well-executed numbers: “There Goes My Baby” and the catchy “Love Potion #9,” and Fowler (who was in SLT’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) gives an Elvis-worthy rendition of “Jailhouse Rock” that includes featured dancer Anastacia Hutchinson, and takes the vocal reigns on “Teach Me How to Shimmy” with Hood effortlessly shimmying around the set in a white sparkling shimmy mini-dress during the entire song.

Other highlights include the fellas in tuxes and dark sunglasses in “On Broadway” and the burlesque number “Trouble” with Hood and Oden. Oh, and the novelty songs “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown” (I never realized they were essentially the same song) are not to be missed with a solo by Barry McGinnis on saxophone.

And last but certainly not least, the breakout star of “Smokey Joe’s Café” is none other than Wolfe, whose entire clan is part of the SLT theatre family.

Wolfe channels Frankie Valli in “Dance With Me” (The Drifters), and sings lead on the hilarious “Poison Ivy” (scratching choreography and all), and finally “Loving You” made famous by Elvis Presley.

In addition, to Kennedy and McGinnis, the band includes Shawn Allen on guitar, (who has a rockin’ solo in “Baby, That is Rock & Roll), Jordan Hanner on bass and Kevin Heuer at the drum kit.

The scenic design (a multi-level set with stairs and band stages, a city skyline cutout as a backdrop, neon signs-a-plenty) is by Rick Connor; the many spiffy sparkling costumes are by Anna Grace Bradford; the crisp sound quality by Trey Hendon, lighting by Peter Lamson and Ashley Zimmerman is Stage Manager.

“Smokey Joe’s Café” continues through Sunday, May 12 at Chapman Cultural Center, 200 E. St. John St. in Spartanburg. For tickets, call (864) 542-ARTS or visit http://www.chapmanculturalcenter.org.

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