“Smokey Joe’s” Summer Stop at Long Wharf
By Tom Holehan
New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre concludes their brief summer season with a booked-in revival of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”. This serviceable production, on loan from New Jersey’s Irving Street Repertory Theatre, is passable entertainment until Long Wharf launches its highly anticipated 49th season in October.
One of the first in what has become a very long line of “jukebox musicals” on Broadway, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” celebrates the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the composers responsible for some of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits among countless other artists. The songbook featured here lists nothing but winners so a visit to any production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is rarely a waste of time. Still, this current production, directed by A. Curtis Farrow, lacks momentum with a company of performers that vary in talent. As a whole the show seems to work better in its group numbers where the voices are relatively strong and the harmony is agreeable. “Neighborhood”, “Baby That Is Rock & Roll” and “Stand by Me” are all rendered smoothly.
But individual vocals don’t always deliver the goods. Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock”, “Treat Me Nice” and “Hound Dog” are performed by singers here who only serve to remind you how much better the King made them sound. In this regard, Stevanie Anita Williams also doesn’t do justice to “Pearl’s a Singer” and Famecia Ward’s impressive belt can’t disguise the fact that she basically trashes all the possibilities of a hilarious song like “Don Juan”. A consistent problem with most of the company members is a lack of clarity in diction with Jose Figueroa's overwrought rendition of “I Who Have Nothing” a prime example.
Mr. Farrow’s rudimentary staging goes for the obvious and literal at every turn. You can bet the singers will be scratching pointlessly during “Poison Ivy” (wearing ill-advised green leafy wigs) and that the repetitive choreography consists mostly of kick-lines and knee bends. An unattractive tiered disc center stage is used with little variation and the mugging of background singers often becomes distracting. Constant blackouts also slow down the action in a revue that simply should never stop.
Among the better moments are Ron Lucas’s soulful “Young Blood” and the female quartet comes close to delivering a showstopper with “I’m a Woman”. Dawn Marie Driver’s “Fools Fall in Love” impresses even though she’s been encouraged to insert far too many dramatic pauses in the song. She also leads the entire cast in the roof-raising “Saved”, a revival number that generates some much-need energy just before intermission. The five-member band, under the musical direction of pianist John Bronston, is ultimately the most professional aspect of this touring show.
Despite problems, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is still a tuneful trip down memory lane. While there’s little magic or electricity on the Long Wharf stage, just hearing all those cool songs on a hot summer night may be enough for some theatergoers.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through July 28. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.