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Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Words and Music by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden (Based on Original Choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge)
The Muny
July 26, 2021

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is back! After having to cancel their live performances last year due to the pandemic, sitting in the familiar green seats in Forest Park is a welcome experience. What’s also welcome is a surprisingly refreshed production of a show I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing–Smokey Joe’s Cafe. I had seen it before, and didn’t see much beyond a collection of staged hit songs by the popular songwriting duo of Lieber and Stoller. The music is great, but there wasn’t a lot of “show” here, or so I thought. The Muny has, with their first production of their 103rd season, given me a pleasant surprise, with an excellent and consistent setting and actual characterization in addition to a great cast and classic songs.

There still isn’t a lot of plot, but what has been brought out here is a strong sense of setting and theme, with the cast playing consistent characters. Even though the cast members play a few different roles throughout the show, each has a “main” character whose story they return to over the course of the production. There are some stories to follow, mostly involving the characters’ love lives, with a few vignettes of life in the neighborhood to further establish the theme and atmosphere. The setting is in St. Louis’s iconic Gaslight Square neighborhood, which was a hot spot known especially for its ambiance and nightlife in its heyday in the 1950’s and 60’s, which fits well for the Lieber and Stoller soundtrack.

The main cast consists of nine excellent performers–Charl Brown, Michael Campayno, Mykal Kilgore, Tiffany Mann, Hayley Podschun, Dee Roscioli, Christopher Sams, Nasia Thomas, and Jason Veasey–backed by the energetic Muny Youth Ensemble. Everyone is in strong voice, showcasing the hit songs well, with some standout vocals from Mann on “Fools Fall in Love”, “Saved”, and “Hound Dog”, and Kilgore on “I (Who Have Nothing)”. There’s great dancing, as well, and fun production numbers like the Act 1 closer of “D.W. Washburn” leading into “Saved”. There’s also a little bit of a “slice of life” angle going on here, showcasing the setting especially well, with the excellent band–led by music director Abdul Hamid Royal–playing a memorable part and being showcased on stage, especially in the second act in which they are visible and become characters in the show.

This is a visually dazzling show, as well, with the historic Gaslight Square neighborhood featured in its glory, as represented in Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s stunningly detailed set, highlighting some real Gaslight Square establishments and street names. Kevin Loney’s memorable video design also contributes to this atmosphere, as do Rob Denton’s atmospheric lighting and, especially, Sully Ratke’s colorful, period-specific costumes.

My thoughts about Smokey Joe’s Cafe (based on a previous production not at the Muny) are already on record. I’ve referred to it as a “staged concert” and “an extended theme park show”, even though the production I saw was well-performed and produced. What the Muny has demonstrated with this production is that there is a real show here, and it’s a thoroughly engaging one, masterfully conceived and directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge and impressively performed by its cast and band. It’s a fun and entertaining return to a St. Louis institution, as well as a celebration of a legendary St. Louis neighborhood and a catalog of enduring hit songs.

Tiffany Mann, Mykal Kilgore (center), and cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Smokey Joe’s Cafe in Forest Park until August 1st, 2021.

 

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Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Words and Music by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller
Directed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 3, 2015

Cast of Smokey Joe's Cafe Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

There’s no denying that Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the opening production of STAGES’s 2015 season, is a crowd pleaser. It contains some great classic songs that are performed well, with some colorful costumes and polished production values, and the audience on opening night was appreciative. What is confusing, though, is exactly what else it is. It’s not a musical, and it would even be generous to call it a revue.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a staged concert. It’s a well-done staged concert, though, and it’s certainly entertaining.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe is essentially a showcase for the songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who wrote many popular hits of the 50s, 60s and 70s,  including “On Broadway’, “I’m a Woman”, “Stand By Me” and “Jailhouse Rock”.  The nine performers (Josh A. Dawson, Kent Overshown, J. Nycole Ralph, Richard Crandle, Keisha Gilles, Emily Afton, Bronwyn Tarboton, Brent Michael Diroma, and Jason Samuel) sing the songs in various settings, taking turns with featured solos. The set, designed by James Wolk, is colorful but fairly basic, changing around a little bit to suggest a neighborhood street, a cafe, etc. There are also extremely colorful, well-appointed costumes by Brad Musgrove that augment the various song settings and add to the overall atmosphere of the show.

I have to admit I don’t “get” shows like this, really. This strikes me as something of an extended theme park show, no matter how well-produced it is, and at STAGES, it is well-produced, with a very good cast. The songs are great, of course, but there’s no story or even really much of a theme. The performers are given names for their characters, but that doesn’t really matter because they’re never mentioned in the show and there’s no plot. It’s just song after song without much of a connection between them, and the settings of the individual songs are fairly arbitrary. Some settings are clever–like the end of Act 1 and the combination of “D.W. Washburn” and “Saved”, which is the absolute highlight of the show, with a fun comic performance from Crandle and the soaring voice and energetic presence of Gilles, who has my vote for MVP of this production. Many of the other settings, however, are fairly interchangeable, and some of the performances can be lackluster (such on the distinctly underwhelming “Jailhouse Rock” sequence that borrows from the film but lacks its energy). Overall, though, the cast does a fine job singing and dancing the songs well.

I realize that not all shows have to be deep or profound, but something like this barely qualifies as theatre. It’s a concert, plain and simple, no matter how well done. STAGES has done an excellent job with the material, but with their resources, I think they could be spending them on better shows. For an evening of light entertainment, though, I suppose Smokey Joe’s Cafe works.

Cast of Smokey Joe's Cafe Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, presented by STAGES St. Louis, runs at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until June 28, 2015

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