SMOKEY JOE’S CAFEWords and Music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Director: Robert Michael James
Music Director: Aimee Hurst Bozarth
Choreographer: Jenna Meador
Stage Manager: Katie Marchant
Set Design: Rodney Dobbs
Technical Director: Brian Scheffer
Costume Design: Barbara O’Donoghue
Lighting Design: Nikki Deshea Smith
Sound Design: David Lanza
BJ: Patricia E. Hill
Victor: Domanick Anton Hubbard
Ken: Quintin Jones
Fred: Darren McElroy
DeLee: Jenna Meador
Brenda: Nikka Morton
Adrian: Oris Phillips Jr.
Michael: Chris Ramirez
Pattie: Melinda Wood Allen
Reviewed Performance: 8/6/2016
Reviewed by Holly Reed, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Led by a cast of 5 men and 4 women, this musical revue blazes through 39 songs, 2 acts, dozens of costume changes and scores of dance steps. The endurance required by this cast is monumental, and from beginning to end, the small Jubilee Theatre cast proved up to the challenge. Kudos to the resilience and flexibility of cast members, who were required to switch gears quickly between songs tempos and dance styles with virtually no break in between. The energy and motion of the show was consistently high which was essential to prevent boredom in a show with no trace of plot or story.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe has no dialogue, no narration to bridge songs together, and no indication of individual character. While there are character names listed in the program, they are essentially unnecessary. It is an evening of quick-change karaoke/cabaret that could and possibly should accompany a dinner or social gathering, as the music tended to become monotone stylistically, and since there was no story, it was easy to be toe-tapping to the beat while daydreaming of other things. I found it hard to stay engaged without story and character to draw me in.
Because of the lack of established characters, the actors often defaulted to stock-acting during the songs, playing to nostalgia but lacking depth. I long to connect with characters, feeling their plight, struggles, and victories, and Smokey Joe’s Cafe left me wanting. Songs such as “Pearl’s a Singer” and “You Don’t Love Me No More” were extremely cheesy and overacted. There were, however, a few actors who seemed genuine and restrained from overacting.
I especially enjoyed Nikka Morton (Brenda). She was charming and sincere and always authentic, whether in the limelight in songs such as “Don Juan” and “Some Cats Know” or when providing background for “Little Egypt” and “Love Potion #9.” She was vocally solid and had beautiful control throughout her registers.
Vocal prowess was not as prominent in the other female cast members, who struggled moving from low to high notes while maintaining consistent vocal weight. For example, in “Kansas City” and “Love Me/Don’t,” Melinda Wood Allen (Pattie) flipped into a very airy tone as the pitch went up, and often during climactic song endings her voice was lost among the swell of the band. There were also a few vocal weight and pitch issues for Patricia Hill (B.J.) in “Dance With Me” and “Fools Fall in Love (Reprise).”
The male cast members were all strong vocally, worked as a team, and made more authentic acting choices overall. I especially enjoyed Oris Phillips Jr. (Adrian) for his calm, genuine, sincere presence and his smooth vocal tone. He carried the cast in songs such as “Love Me,” “There Goes My Baby” and his beautiful rendition of “Stand By Me.”
Darren McElroy (Fred) was delightful and funny in “Shopping for Clothes” and his resounding bass voice adequately delivered the punchline in “Charlie Brown.” My most favorite moment of the show was “You’re the Boss” by Darren and Nikka, whose chemistry was absolute perfection.
I also enjoyed the mellow vocals of Quintin Jones (Ken). “Loving You” was his best number, but he was strong and supportive vocally throughout the show. His passion and skill in dance were fabulous as well.
Dominic Anton Hubbard (Victor) was a strong player. He was entertaining in “D. W. Washburn” and vocally strong in “I Who Have Nothing.”
The amount and intensity of dance the cast had to learn was daunting. The guys were sweating like crazy halfway through, and I was hoping there was unending water on tap in each wing. Jenna Meadow's (choreographer/DeLee) choreography was mostly on point and appropriate for the various settings and styles for each song. Her training was very evident and her choreography skills were showcased best in the more technical dance scenes. “Teach Me How to Shimmy” and “I’m A Woman” were standout numbers for her.
There were however a few choices that could stand some adjustment. Partnering an upper-middle aged woman with a young man in “Love Me/Don’t” was a little off-putting and “cougarish.” While “On Broadway” was a highlight, the choreography took away from the vocals a bit and could have been toned down to give the guys more adequate breath support. While the energy at the closing to Act One grew to a climax in “Saved,” the choir background vocals and tambourines got a little out of hand and completely drowned out the soloist.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe is very much a tribute to early pop music of the mid-to-late twentieth century and reminds me of a theme park show that is a little heavy on the cheese. For a trip down memory lane for those from that era, it’s a short drive to yesteryear. Smokey Joe’s Cafe is more like a vintage playlist than a juicy summer novel, so be sure you’re ready to let loose and rock and roll when you walk in the door.