Theatre Raleigh has chosen a sure-fire hit to open their 2017 Summer Series, Leiber and Stoller's Smokey Joe's Cafe, a cabaret-style musical revue that highlights the many chart-topping songs that this duo penned, either together or in collaboration with other well-known writers of the '50s and '60s. On a super set designed to showcase these songs, Theatre Raleigh gives us nine superb voices to make this show sizzle.
As with any musical revue, a superior show needs a superior band, and this one ranks up there with the best of them. Led by musical director Michael Santangelo, these six musicians gave these songs a substantial boost and supplied the singers with a rich tapestry of support.
On a set designed by Chris Bernier, the band is positioned above and behind the singers, on a platform with extra room for a singer or two to join them. This level keeps the band from overpowering the vocalists, since the intimate nature of the Kennedy Theatre does not leave room for a pit. Leading down to stage level, a staircase hugs each wall, leaving a clear center stage for maximum room to dance, which these folks did sublimely.
Jerry Leiber and Michael Stoller managed in a single decade to write over seventy hit songs, and this revue makes sure that we hear all the ones we already know by heart. But, this compilation of 39 songs also adds a few unfamiliar to us, and these singers gave us such a fresh rendition of these tunes that they seemed like brand new songs. The show's performers, a combination of local and regional talent assembled by director Julia Murney, really made these songs pop.
I found every one of these tunes to be excellent; giving you a compilation of standouts will be difficult. These singer/dancers gave their all to each and every one, which brought a cacophony of delighted reaction from this enthusiastic audience.
Four of the five men made up a quartet of vocalists that performed very much like the quartets that made these songs hits to begin with. Melvin Gray, Darius Jordan Lee, and Saidu Sinlah are joined by bassman Randy Cain to dance and sing such hits as "On Broadway" and "Poison Ivy." Baritone John Langley is joined by two of the four ladies, Yolanda Rabun and Kate McMillan, to knock out a superb rendition of the classic "Kansas City." And our remaining pair of ladies, Cassidy Hamilton and Annelise Cepero, makes sure the boys know that they're "Trouble." Choreographer Abbey O'Brien has given these folks some superior dance moves, and the entire program moved seamlessly from one tune to the next with little or no interruption. So well, in fact, do these songs flow that the entirety of the 16-song first act gets squeezed into a single hour.
There is plenty of opportunity to shine in this dynamic revue, and some of the solos were true showstoppers. Rabun is a first-class gospel singer, mixing a powerful vocal with true charm to give us a couple of renditions of "Fools Fall in Love." McMillan gave us the definition of a torch song with "I Keep Forgettin'," and Cepero put it on the line with a sultry cabaret-style "Some Cats Know," after telling "Don Juan" that when your money's gone, your baby's gone!
The entire contingent filled the stage to bursting without getting in each other's way. The company gave us a knockout version of "Baby, That's Rock and Roll" as well as the title song, "Smokey Joe's Cafe," complete with tables, chairs, and bar! The whole crew joined together to present a bounty of chart-toppers such as "Yakety-Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Saved," and "Jailhouse Rock," led by Langley in a mean channeling of Elvis.
Duets brought voices together often, with excellent chemistry between Gray and McMillan in "Love Me/Don't," clear understanding between Cepero and Cain in "You're the Boss," and some very sultry overlays between Lee and Cepero in "Spanish Harlem." The ladies joined forces in a powerhouse rendition of the well-known anthem "I'm a Woman," and the entire program ended on an undeniable high note as the company backed Gray in a spirited rendition of Leiber and Stoller's perhaps best-known standard, "Stand By Me." As soon as the last note sounded, the crowd was on its feet to let the cast know that they belted one right out of the park. A total 39 tremendous tunes flowed from this stellar cast, and we could have listened to 39 more, so attuned were we to this dynamic set of vocalists.
Smokey Joe's Cafe has been around for years, so many, in fact, that it is a marvel that this is the first time I have had a chance to catch the show. I must say, I am sorry that it took so long, but, I am pleased and happy that my introduction to this revue was delivered by such a dynamic and talented cast. The revue opened Theatre Raleigh's 2017 Summer Series with a decided punch. This one will keep your toes tapping and your heart wide-open.
Smokey Joe's Cafe continues through Sunday, June 11. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.