Smokey Joe’s Cafe – Review by Tom Holehan

There are several Connecticut venues opening slowly but surely, but the 4-year-old A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Ridgefield is the first live theatre I got to experience locally since the pandemic. And what a joy to hear a catalog of great music by a group of talented performers in ACT’s jubilant revival of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, a jukebox musical in the liveliest sense.

With a curtain speech that threatened to be as long as the pandemic-delay of reopening ACT, Artistic Director Daniel Levine welcomed back his supportive audience to a production that, he claimed, only had three weeks of rehearsal. “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” then proceeded in a brisk and lively 85 minutes (no intermission) with nary an issue or flaw to report. Good for them!

Subtitled “The Songs of Leiber and Stoller”, the song list here includes such classics as “Neighborhood”, “Poison Ivy”, “Fools Fall in Love”, “Charlie Brown”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Spanish Harlem”, “Stand by Me” and more than two dozen more. The revival is performed by a multi-talented cast of five men and three women and directed with zeal and endless creativity by Stephanie Pope Lofgren. As singers, the cast is perfectly harmonious in group numbers like “Neighborhood”, “DW Washburn” and “Saved”, a gospel number that nearly stops the show. Several standouts in solos include Albert Guerzon’s dynamic “Ruby”, Kelly MacMillan’s savvy and funny “Don Juan” and Courtney Long’s “Fools Fall in Love” which is initially sung up tempo and then slowed down to torch song perfection later in the evening.

The gifted ensemble also includes Arnold Harper II, Avionce Hoyles, Jordan Fife Hunt, Keyonna Knight and Juson Williams and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is also blessed with a terrific pit band led by John Bronston and six other musicians who somehow managed to sound like twenty. The creative two-tier setting and crisp lighting design is by Jack Mehler with smart and sassy costuming by Claudia Stefany. I do wish that Pope hadn’t decided to end most of the songs with a blackout, an action that tends to stop the show cold blunting the otherwise electric momentum. I also question pumping dry ice in from stage right throughout the proceedings. The musical doesn’t have to be literally “smoky” on stage.

All told, however, this is a very fine revival of a snappy jukebox musical. You are guaranteed a good time at ACT. As the old MGM films used to boast, “Boy, do we need it now!”

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” continues at A Contemporary Theatre in Ridgefield, Connecticut through October 24. For further information visit: www.actofct.org or call the theatre box office: 475.215.5433. Patrons are required to wear masks during the performance and temperatures will be checked at the door.

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 the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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