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THEATER REVIEW

'Smokey' turns on the heat

Short on context but very long on family-friendly entertainment, the show celebrates two prolific songwriters.

May 06, 2003|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

The poster for "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center depicts a candy-colored jukebox. Appropriate, as this Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities revival of the 1995 celebration of songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller is a soda fountain platter-spinner come to life.

Stephen Helper and Jack Viertel conceived "Smokey Joe's Cafe" along with Otis Sallid. The 1995 Broadway production, directed by Jerry Zaks, withstood lackluster notices to garner seven Tony nominations, lasting for 2,037 performances. Using nearly 40 songs by the indefatigable authors (together and with other collaborators) of "On Broadway" and half of Elvis Presley's repertoire, "Smokey" asks no more of its audience than to sit back and let the performers do their thing.

Their thing, in this case, is imposing, as director Glenn Casale's nine-member cast demonstrates roof-rattling investment. From sauntering entrance -- the establishing "Neighborhood," as close to a through line as "Smokey" ever gets -- to the staunch "Stand by Me" finale, this top-flight crew is a full-throttle entertainment machine.

There is Tony-nominated DeLee Lively Torti of the original cast, combining equal parts Marilyn Monroe, Rachel Sweet and (in her show-stopping "Teach Me How to Shimmy") a Waring blender. And the purring Darlesia Cearcy, whose way with a feather boa is no less insinuating than her torching take on "Some Cats Know," another peak.

Christa Jackson upholds the average, her full-throated belt approaching Janis Joplin levels in "Pearl's a Singer." The Ovation-winning Kecia Lewis astonishes at each appearance, carrying the Act 1 gospel finale, "Saved," and delivering "Fools Fall in Love" like a creature possessed.

Midway through Act 2, when these four powerhouses tear into "I'm a Woman," asbestos couldn't withstand the sheer vocal heat.

The men are also well blended, sidling through Jeffrey Polk's clever choreography in easy tandem. Darrian Ford hijacks the crowd with his clowning and galactic high notes. Ron Kellum moves smoothly between sassy and soulful, with keen moves in the "Spanish Harlem" pas de deux with Cearcy.

Harrison White and Hassan El-Amin, dividing the lower-register vocal duties, are sometimes wicked, sometimes woeful, and generally wonderful.

Robert Torti reacts to his wife's gyrations in "Shimmy" with priceless timing and neatly stylizes Presley in "Jailhouse Rock." Barring uneasy sound mixing at the reviewed performance, the tech is typically slick. The uncredited set, with musical director Steven Smith's combo perched above the lighting-friendly glass lobby-style doors, is fine. So are Pamela Gray's dense lighting plot and the pert costumes of Steven Howard and Bob Miller.

All of this goes as far as possible to counter the ephemeral content beneath the packed program. Unlike, say, "Forever Plaid" or "Sophisticated Ladies," "Smokey" doesn't supply era context or unifying concept or indeed any point beyond performing Lieber and Stoller's songs. Ultimately, the piece is a prefabricated synthesis of family-friendly Las Vegas show and theme-park attraction.

Yet, like book shows "Grease!" before it and "Mamma Mia!" after it, "Smokey Joe's Cafe" may be made of vinyl byproducts, but its crowd-pleasing efficiency is both undeniable and critic-proof. Theatergoers requiring fare that is more substantial are forewarned, though.

*

'Smokey Joe's Cafe'

Where: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; also 2 p.m. May 10, 17; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m., May 11, 18

Ends: May 18

Price: $35 to $50

Contact: (310) 372-4477

Running time: 2 hours

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