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REVIEW: Retro Hit Parade in Smokey Joe’s Cafe

The company of the Ordway’s new production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Photo by Dan Norman.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe is an unabashed jukebox musical revue. It has no plot, no throughlines worth reporting, and no dialogue. If these things were at all missed, the audiences at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ on Friday didn’t seem at all bothered, with their heads bobbing and people singing along through many of the songs.

As a feat, the expansive catalogue of rock and R&B songs produced by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is certainly impressive. Director/choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s staging leaves no pauses, with a dynamic pulse throughout the intermission-less evening. It’s low-calorie fare – especially against more story-driven jukebox musicals like Beautiful or Jersey Boys – but also easy to digest and leave at the theatre door.

A promotional photo for Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Photo by Dan Norman.

The 10-person cast of Smokey Joe’s contains a lot of vocal and dancing talent, and as individual pieces there is a lot of fun stuff to see. Collectively, there are a lot of inconsistencies, especially with the more iconic songs like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog” that get stuck with being compared to their famous recordings and not developing into their own, interesting variations.

Another inconsistency arises from the choreography, which makes a much more limited use of the female ensemble than the men. For whatever reason, Bergasse’s choreography for the women tends to involve more stock gestures and poses being repeated, a limitation that does not appear in the pieces featuring men. This doesn’t affect the enjoyment of showcase pieces like “Teach Me How to Shimmy” (which features Emily Scinto as the titular, high-octane shimmier), but contributes to the program starting to drag thereafter.

Emily Scinto (center) is the featured dancer in “Teach Me How to Shimmy”. Photo by Dan Norman.

Some of the show’s most enjoyable moments involve little musical interludes, such as when the bandstand slides onstage for Sanford Moore and Raymond Berg to give a riveting performance of “Dueling Pianos”. Another is Kevin Brown, Jr.’s soul-filled performance “I Who Have Nothing”, which has all the pull of a good 11-o’clock number without quite being the penultimate piece. Other standouts include Jorie Ann Kosel in “Trouble”, the ensemble piece “Along Came Jones”, and the Jorie Ann Kosel/Ben Bakken duet “Pearl’s a Singer”.

Great theatre is many things to many different people. The Ordway’s Smokey Joe makes its case that unabashed light entertainment is a great way to punctuate your evening. That’s not just “Yakety Yak.”

Shavey Brown and the company of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Photo by Dan Norman.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller plays through September 22 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine