Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2003
This is one of those head-scratchers. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote tons of fabulous rock ‘n’ roll songs in the 1950’s and 1960’s – the kind of songs that make you want to get up and dance. And the Mac-Haydn has a talented, energetic cast of young singers and dancers who should be able to sell this stuff in a heart-beat. And yet this production of Smokey Joe's Café never really ignites. And it’s not for lack of effort.
In fact, the reason this show just makes you tap your foot instead of get up and bogie could be because way too much effort went in to it. Smokey Joe's Café is solidly a musical revue. There is no dialogue, no characters with whom to get involved, nothing but the music and the lyrics and the performers. The Broadway version of this show featured just nine performers. The Mac-Haydn piles three times that number on to their tiny stage. For much of this show there are just too many people, dividing your attention and distracting you from the music and the lyrics.
In order to accommodate all those performers, many numbers which could be nicely handled by just one or two people become all-singing, all-dancing chorus numbers. The Mac-Haydn crew excels at this all-singing, all-dancing stuff, but that is usually in the context of a book musical. Here they trot out all their usual tricks and they fall flat. In some cases I felt strongly that director/choreographer Rusty Curcio didn’t understand the music. The dancing was wrong, wrong, wrong – particularly in Jailhouse Rock, one of my all-time favorite Elvis songs. I wanted lots more Bob Fosse and much less Busby Berkley.
I would rather have seen the Mac-Haydn trot out just their very best performers and leave the big chorus numbers for another show. There were some fabulous solos and duets hidden in all the frenzy. Marcia Kunkel rocks the house in several solo spots – particularly in her second act reprise of Fools Fall in Love. I don’t think this Mac-Haydn regular has ever looked or sounded better. She alone is worth the price of admission.
Karla Shook shows off her powerful pipes in a poignant number Pearl’s a Singer, and Ray Brown should have brought down the house with his all-out rendition of I, Who Have Nothing. Both Kunkel’s reprise and Brown’s powerful solo come too late in the evening to ignite the fire that they easily could have. If they were allowed to let loose in the first act they would have had the audience in the palms of their hands by this point in the show.
Tiffany Thornton and Jim Kidd embody the sexy soul of Leiber and Stoller in a smoldering version of You’re the Boss. And there is a great deal of female pulchritude in evidence in several numbers, notably Don Juan, and Some Cats Know performed by Jackie Lamptey, Katie Cheek, Kelly Shook, Kristen Clark, and Lisa Karlin with amazing hot pink boas. While I loved the look, the individual busy-ness each lady invented with her boa was ultimately distracting.
If you like to be entertained by lovely young women strutting their stuff, the gyrations of Kelly Shook, Lisa Karlin, Kathryn Moore, and Danielle Crinnion in Teach Me How to Shimmy will be your favorite number. Vickie Bast has provided an astounding number of costumes for this show, ranging from the mediocre to the sublime, but those brightly colored, all-over fringe shimmy outfits were to die for!
Here’s hoping that I just saw this show on an off-night. Write and tell me if, when you go, you are just rocked out of your seat. The talent is there and the music is top-notch rock ‘n’ roll. I’d love to hear that everyone finally got it together.
Smokey Joe's Café runs through June 15 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs just a tad over two hours and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003