Off-Broadway Review: “Smokey Joe’s Café” at Stage 42

Off-Broadway Review: “Smokey Joe’s Café” at Stage 42 (Tickets on Sale through January 9, 2019)
Co-conceived by Stephen Helper and Jack Vierte
Directed and Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Faded pictures in my scrapbook/Just thought I’d take one more look/And recall when we were all/In the neighborhood.” – “Neighborhood”

The revival of Grammy-Award-Winning “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller,” having headed south from its recent engagement at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, has landed at Stage 42 in New York City to positive notices from the press – including this one! Forty iconic Leiber and Stoller hits in ninety minutes would be glorious enough, but hearing those songs delivered by a cast of nine extraordinary singers and dancers backed by a powerhouse eight-member band is an experienced not to be missed. “Smokey Joe’s Café” currently running at Stage 42 delivers more that might expect from any musical revue.

Under Joshua Bergasse’s direction, the cast (five men and four women) fills Beowulf Boritt’s towering Café set with solo numbers, duets, trios, quartets, quintets and full company numbers that transport the adoring audience back to a glorious past with themes that reverberate in the present and continue to be relevant in the future. The forty songs celebrate memories, falling in and out of love, perseverance in adversity, seduction, equality, and loyalty. Whether backed by the band or singing a capella, the performers deliver their songs with rich interpretive skills and pristine vocal qualities.

There are solos, duets, trios, quartets, quartets plus one, and roof-raising company numbers. The roof of
Stage 42 is rattled not only by the matchless vocals but also by the members of the band including a piano four-hand challenge. For some of the numbers, band members bring instruments onto the stage. Yuka Tadano plays her standing bass and Eric Brown plays a small set of drums center stage. Mr. Bergasse’s staging is innovative and engages the audience in the “neighborhood” experience of Smokey Joe’s Café.

Standout solos are Jelani Remy’s ebullient “Jailhouse Rock” and John Edwards’s hauntingly beautiful “I Who Have Nothing.” Both singers have expansive ranges and beautiful rich tones that dig deeply into their songs. With Dwayne Cooper and Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani and John are the men’s quartet that owns the stage with slick classic Motown dance moves and other classic dance steps all choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. The harmonies created are tight and full of wonderful texture. Often other members of the cast join the quartet or create other combinations of voices and styles.

Standout numbers in the “Smokey Joe’s Café” song list are the tender “Dance with Me” (Dionne D. Figgins with All Men); “On Broadway” (Men’s Quartet); the seductive “Spanish Harlem” (Dionne and Jelani with Dwayne and Max Sangerman); “Fools Fall in Love” (Nicole Vanessa Ortiz with Emma Degerstedt and John); “Kansas City” (Nicole, Max, and Alysha Umphress); “Stand By Me” (John with Full Company); “Loving You” (sung a capella with Max and All Men); “There Goes My Baby” (Kyle with All Men); and “I’m A Women” (All Women with Kyle).

“Smokey Joe’s Café’s” current incarnation is a must-see show. The all-star cast and the Leiber & Stoller songs they perform will keep you singing and remembering long after leaving the theater. The opening number sung by the Full Company says it best: “Faded pictures in my scrapbook/Just thought I’d take one more look/And recall when we were all/In the neighborhood.”