Plaza Theatre Company
Director – G. Aaron Siler
Musical Director—Cheri Dee Mega
Scenic Designer –JaceSon P. Barrus
Lighting Designer—G. Aaron Siler
Sound Designer – G. Aaron Siler
Costume Designer – Stefanie Glenn
Jace—JaceSon P. Barrus
Chimberly—Chimberly Carter Byrom (absent at this performance, Ms. Byrom’s solos performed by Caitlan Leblo)
Jason—Jason Phillip Cole
Reviewed Performance 9/10/2016
Reviewed by Genevieve Croft , Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Told with very little consistent plot, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” presents one show-stopping number after another by the fantastic song-writing duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. If you are thinking that you have no idea who Leiber and Stoller might be- I can assure you that you have probably more familiar with them than you think. You have probably heard hit after hit without even realizing who the songwriters were. Not only did they pen some of the greatest songs made famous by Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll (think “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock”), but, they also brought such standards as “On Broadway,” and “Stand by Me” to the repertoires of George Benson and Ben E. King.
Having only seen this musical one time prior to this performance, I had high expectations for the production. Additionally, when The Plaza Theatre Company mounts a show, audiences are guaranteed a well-executed, and visually stunning production. Not only was it going to be an excellent musical history lesson, but, I was ready for a “concert-style” experience at the theatre Saturday afternoon. As soon as the show was over, I heard at least four other Leiber and Stoller songs on the way home-further peaking my interest in the famous songwriting duo. It’s funny how things work out that way sometimes.
Director G. Aaron Siler brought together a phenomenal and talented ensemble cast who were synced and worked well together. One of the most pleasing elements of any musical review is the focus is on the music and the sound of the songwriting team being showcased. This production of “Smokey Joe’s Café” really stripped down to the heart of the music, and provided me with an opportunity to listen to some of the beautiful melodies, harmonies, and strong stage voices of this talented company. It was especially pleasing to see quite a catalogue of many popular songs by Leiber and Stoller. These songs were represented-with innocence and nostalgia. It is apparent that Mr. Siler took great care in presenting the musical numbers that were present on the jukebox during the 1950’s and 60’s.
Sets were designed by JaceSon P. Barrus. There were not really a lot of set pieces to comment on. In the opening of the show, a simple jukebox is sitting on stage, very reminiscent of what would be expected in old barber shop or diners. It was a nice touch to see the gentlemen of the ensemble come out, and gather around the jukebox to open and introduce the show. The majority of the stage was bare, as the focus was on the music, and the choreography (designed fabulously by Brooke Goodson) to tell the story of each individual song. In the second half of the production, the “café” as described in “Smokey Joe’s Café” was set before the audience with small round tables, and chairs. The ambiance was further established with some lovely old-fashioned café style lights that were strung across the ceiling creating an intimate and dark café right before the audience. This has been the fourth show that I have seen at Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne, and I can say with great honesty that I am consistently impressed by the manipulation of the theatre-in-the-round space. It never looks the same. I am impressed with Mr. Barrus’ creative and fresh take on the space show after show.
Sound was designed by Director G. Aaron Siler. I cannot tell you how pleasurable it was to enter the performance space, and be greeted by the sounds of the songwriters being highlighted in the material. Before I started reading the list of musical numbers in the production, I heard (in my humble opinion) hit after hit that took me on an amazing audio journey of their vast catalogue of songs. Sound can often be an overlooked element of theatrical design. To the outsider, one might think, “you just download iTunes or buy a cd and let it play.” Those individuals could not be more wrong. Sound designers painstakingly spend hours listening to and selecting songs to evoke just the right amount of emotion or nostalgia to give to theatre-goers. Even if only for a moment, the right amount of milieu was established to bring audiences in from 2016 and back to the 1950’s and 60’s. In addition to Mr. Siler’s multitude of talents (he even finds the time to sing “Stay A While,” a charming solo number that is used as a segue between “Charlie Brown” and “Pearl’s A Singer,” he also served in the creative capacity of lighting designer. The lighting design was just a simple as the sets, but, was splashed with a ton of color-very reminiscent to the inside of jukebox. Every time the list of songs would go from one to another, I felt as I had been transported inside of the jukebox with the flashy and colorful blinking lights, and the warm tones of pinks and purples. It complimented the simplicity of the sets and did not take away from the focus of the production-which was clearly the music.
In a heavy ensemble production such as this one, it is difficult to identify stand-out actors or actresses. However, I feel that the talents of Amber Lanning, Caitlan Leblo and Nate Milson must be recognized. All three of these talented individuals were showcased on stage, and made their solos look so effortless, and easy. Ms. Lanning and Ms. Leblo were able to belt and fill the space with beautiful melodies and harmonies. Mr. Milson had the most delightful bass voice-one that would have certainly been missed in such numbers as “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.” Out of a very talented ensemble, these three individuals certainly shine and allow the songs of Leiber and Stoller to come out of the musical archive, and to be as relevant now as they were many years ago.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is definitely worth seeing. It is apparent to me that a lot of time, care, and talent went into staging this production at Plaza Theatre Company. I highly recommend seeing this production-not only will it leave you nostalgic for more of some classic music from two of the best decades of music, but, you will also have an experience that will be fun-filled, and light. And let’s face it, sometimes we need an experience that is fun and light, if only for an afternoon. Why not take a short road trip down to Cleburne in Johnson County and to the Plaza Theatre Company? To quote Leiber and Stoller…like “faded pictures in my scrapbook, just thought I’d take one more look…” at “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at the Plaza.
SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE
Plaza Theatre Company
111 S. Main Street, Cleburne, Texas 76033
Plays through October 1st.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm.
Ticket prices are as follows:
Seniors (65+): $14
Students (HS and College): $14
Children (12 and under): $13
For more info or to purchase tickets visit: http://www.plaza-theatre.com, or call the box office at 817-202-0600.