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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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