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Raleigh Little Theatre Review: Smokey Joe's Café Really Rocks RLT'S Rose Garden Amphitheatre

June 15, 2004 - Raleigh, NC:


Despite some recurrent sound problems last Saturday night, Raleigh Little Theatre's crowd-pleasing outdoor production of Smokey Joe's Café, performed at 8:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday through June 26th in RLT's Rose Garden Amphitheatre, is a must-see musical. RLT guest director Alison Lawrence's savvy staging, choreographer Carrie Santiago's frisky dance routines, and musical director Glenn Mehrbach and his fellow musicians' high-octane instrumental accompaniment showcase the considerable, acting, singing, and dancing talents of the show's youthful but highly impressive cast.

L-Jae Levine is a gifted comedian and a superb singer a Ben E. King soundalike equally adept at cutting the fool ("Young Blood," "Love Potion #9") and caressing a lyric until it's almost unbearably poignant ("Love Me," "Loving You," "There Goes My Baby," and especially "Stand by Me"). He and Yolanda Williams Rabun also belt out "Hound Dog" with brio.

Anne-Caitlin Donohue is a blonde bombshell whose lead vocals on "Falling," "Trouble" (with Lavora R. Mountain), and "I'm a Woman" (with Rabun, Mountain, and Peggy Hayes) number among the show's musical high spots. In "Teach Me How to Shimmy," she and Jay Brown really cut loose and bring down the house.

In "Don Juan," Lavora Mountain plays the ultimate cynical gold digger with a smirk and a wink; and in "Some Cats Know," she really sizzles. She also combines with Dexter Morgan for a rib-tickling rendition of "You're the Boss."

Jay Brown is a very funny guy and an impressive Elvis Presley imitator, crooning "Ruby Baby," "Dance with Me" (with Yolanda Rabun), and "Kansas City" (with Rabun and Peggy Hayes), and adding a scorching solo on the rousing production number of "Jailhouse Rock."

Peggy Hayes and L-Jae Levine perform an outstanding medley of "Don't" and "Love Me." She also sings "I Keep Forgetting" superbly and sweetly reprises the nostalgic "Neighborhood" in the show's final moments.

Backed with gusto by Dexter Morgan, L-Jae Levine, and Robbie Phillips, Charlie McNeill provides highly amusing comic vocals on "Keep n Rollin'," "Searchin'," "Poison Ivy," and "Shoppin' for Clothes." He also makes like The King on "Treat Me Nice" and "I (Who Have Nothing)."

Dexter Morgan adds a hilarious lead vocal on "Little Egypt," Robbie Phillips takes "Spanish Harlem" for a nostalgic spin down Memory Lane, and Yolanda Rabun makes the most of her moments in the spotlight, making "Fools Fall in Love" and "Saved" two of the show's musical highlights.

RLT guest director Alison Lawrence gets every bit of playfulness and poignance from this series of vivid vignettes designed to pay tribute to the mega-hits of rock-and-roll songsmiths Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Choreographer Carrie Santiago likewise demonstrates a fine flair for comedy and a sure hand with the show's serious moments.

Musical director/conductor Glenn Mehrbach (keyboards and a husky vocal, a la Louis Armstrong, on "Stay a While"), Alex Danilowicz (bass), Mark Gloden (alto and tenor sax, plus a soaring solo on "Yakety Yak"), Matt Kanon (guitar), and Vince Moss (percussion/drums) are five cats who can really wail.

Scenic designer Rick Young provides a series of vivid backdrops for this episodic musical revue, lighting designer Sonya Dowhaluk skillfully manipulates her instruments, and costume designer Vicki Olson dresses the cast in a dazzling array of glad rags and everyday wear. Together, they help make Smokey Joe's Café a must-see musical not just for baby Boomers, but for rock-and-roll fans of all ages.

Raleigh Little Theatre presents Smokey Joe's Café Thursday-Sunday, June 17-20 and 24-26, at 8:30 p.m. in RLT's Rose Garden Amphitheatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15, except special $11 senior and student rate for Sunday performances. 919/821-3111. Note: All performances are wheelchair accessible. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/smokey.htm [inactive 6/04]. Smokey Joe's Café: http://www.smokeyjoescafe.com/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=4286. Internet Movie Database (2000 TV Movie): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0369945/.