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Stomp your feet, snap those fingers, and give a shimmy because Community Theatre of Greensboro breaks in the new Starr Theatre with the vibrant jukebox musical review Smokey Joe’s Café.
Upon walking up to the Starr Theatre, one is greeted by its grand marquee which is beautifully designed and exudes the pizzazz that should always be associated with the theatre. The cozy interior was the perfect backdrop for this review, as the audience size and relation to the stage generated an intimate ambiance. The informality of having the band set up on the stage and not in a pit and the smoldering lighting of deep blues and purples teased the audience in anticipation for the show.
Unquestionably, the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stroller production has mass commercial appeal. Even without the conventional narrative of a book musical, Smokey Joe’s Café utilizes almost 40 beloved chart-topping songs of the 50s and 60s to weave a musical experience rooted in nostalgia for many theatergoers. The show, which opened on Broadway in 1995, still holds the record as the longest-running review in history.
Leiber and Stroller began their collaborator relationship as teenagers, discovering they shared a propensity for writing music for Rhythm and Blues singers of the time. They penned a number of songs for artists such as The Clovers, The Drifters, and also Big Mama Thornton, who introduced “Hound Dog” to the world. Later, that very song attracted the attention of Evil Pressley, and once Leiber and Stroller became key writers for him, their careers gained mainstream crossover success.
The cast of thirteen actors (seven women and six men), with their varying strengths and weaknesses, unfortunately appeared inconsistent. There were a few cast members that struggled vocally to master the rich material, while others breezed effortlessly through. Although there was a lack of sustained excellence throughout all of the numbers, when the performers clicked, any shortcomings were quickly forgotten.
Kesha Graham was flirty and sassy while delivering such songs as “Don Juan” and the duet “You’re the Boss,” shared with Ralph Shaw, whose soothing bass tone blanketed the audience. Walter Johnsons sang with power and conviction in “Poison Ivy,” but especially in the final song, “Stand By Me,” which essentially brought the audience to its feet.
However, the cast shone most in the ensemble numbers. The men nailed the famed Drifters’ selection “On Broadway” with harmonic precision and well-implement dancing. The ladies celebrated their womanhood with strength and attitude in “I’m a Woman.”
This production was full of energetic choreography, conceived by Jose Rondon Jr. “Young Blood” and “Teach Me How to Shimmy” were songs where Rondon’s artistry was able to blossom, especially with the beautiful dancer Lauren Gibbs executing the vision. However, his ability as both dancer and choreographer were spotlighted best in “Saved.” The physicality of the number, combined with La’Tonya Wiley’s immensely soulful vocals, created transcending entertainment.
Smokey Joe’s Café was jam packed with fabulous costumes, from sequined cocktail dresses and tailored suits to leather jackets and pleated skirts. Costume designer Bruce K. Young had his hands full with this show, yet seems to have excelled with the challenge. As the set was very minimalistic, the wardrobe added necessary visual diversity.
After 64 seasons, CTG clearly has still got it! Now that the theatre organization is adorned in its fancy new home, Starr Theatre, the house is for sure rocking with Smokey Joe’s Café.
Smokey Joe’s Café continues through Sunday, October 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.