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Theater Review : Tight Music, Loose Story at 'Smokey Joe's Cafe'


They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway

They say there's always magic in the air .

--"On Broadway," by Jerry Leiber,

Mike Stoller, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil

Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller worked for awhile at a Broadway address, but they never created a Broadway show. Until now.

"Smokey Joe's Cafe," a revue of 39 of their hits--primarily from the '50s and '60s--is at the Doolittle Theatre, en route to Broadway.

Because most of the material in "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is so familiar, it probably won't astonish anyone. "Magic in the air"? Not quite.

But it provides a lot of high-octane fun.

A giant image of a dashboard greets the audience at the outset. As the lights go down to start the show, they linger briefly on the car radio, reminding us of where we first caught the melodic and rhythmic hooks and the sly lyrical wit of the Leiber and Stoller songs.

Broadway powerhouse director Jerry Zaks ("Guys and Dolls") has translated the duo's classics into a theatrical format. This requires a more extended focus than, say, a Top 40 playlist, although the first part of the show still seems a bit random.

After the initial rendition of the lesser-known 1974 song "Neighborhood," which announces our entry into Nostalgia Land, fairly lightweight songs bop on by without forming much of a pattern. Those who thought the narratives of "Forever Plaid" and "Five Guys Named Moe" were too thin will find this show's simply nonexistent.

Nevertheless, the appeal of this ensemble quickly becomes as apparent as that of the individual songs. In contrast to "Plaid" and "Moe," this cast has W-O-M-E-N (to paraphrase a lyric) as well as men. The interplay between the sexes raises the romantic stakes and the sexual temperature.

Among the highlights: the snaky moves of a male quartet in "Searchin' " and "Poison Ivy," the scorching moves of DeLee Lively and Brenda Braxton in "Trouble" and Braxton again in "Don Juan" ("musical staging" by Joey McKneely), the bass tag lines delivered with bemusement by Frederick B. Owens, the extravagant suits in "Shoppin' for Clothes"--which look as if designer William Ivey Long borrowed them from his recent work on "Guys and Dolls."

Gradually the show becomes a bit more cohesive as well. Although the Leiber and Stoller songs aren't as rich in character details as many songs written directly for the theater, Zaks and company found thematic bridges between some of them that make this "Cafe" more than a routine medley. The first half ends with a logical but clever match between "D.W. Washburn," about a fairly contented bum, and "Saved," in which a squad of do-gooders try to raise him up.

These bridges become longer and sturdier in the second half of the show, which is also, yes, smokier and more dimensional. The first part of the second half is set in the eponymous cafe, which--judging from the outfits--appears to be a higher-class joint than the title song might suggest. The backstage band, the Night Managers, makes a brief appearance onstage, with conductor Louis St. Louis dressed in classic bluesman attire. Oddly, no one performs "Smokey Joe's," although the title appears in the band's soulful "Stay a While." But Pattie Darcy Jones quickly establishes the sexual tension with "Some Cats Know."

There are a few playful moments in the second half, most notably when DeLee Lively teaches a quivering Robert Torti to shimmy. It's funny when Victor Trent Cook implores B.J. Crosby to "Treat Me Nice," only to be told that he ain't nothin' but a "Hound Dog" (in the original lyrics as recorded by "Big Mama" Thornton instead of the revised version sung by Elvis Presley). And the potentially incendiary "Riot in Cell Block 9" is quickly cut short when everyone joins the "Jailhouse Rock."

Nevertheless, a more serious tone finally culminates in four intense heart throbbers. Crosby reprises "Fools Fall in Love"--which she had sung up-tempo, with wry detachment, in the first half--as a powerful, personal cry of anguish. Ken Ard and Brenda Braxton make a stunningly glamorous couple in "Spanish Harlem." Cook's falsetto wrenches bitter tears out of "I (Who Have Nothing)," and Adrian Bailey leads the ensemble in the perfect benediction, "Stand By Me."

Not that the show ever becomes heavy. The cast has six blacks and three whites, which might have led to some reflection on the racial issues that lay under the surface of pop music in the '50s and '60s, a la "Dreamgirls." But no, "Smokey Joe's" doesn't cross that threshold.

Beyond entertainment, its only agenda is to celebrate the vast repertoire of hits by Leiber and Stoller (and, if you examine the small print on the credits page of the program, by a few others as well). This it does, with style.

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