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THEATER REVIEW

At `Smokey Joe's Cafe,' it's business as usual

The Fullerton Civic Light Opera's revival is more perfunctory than it is galvanizing.

July 18, 2007|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

Few shows define "jukebox musical" as unswervingly as "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the Tony-nominated 1995 salute to songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It also defines "critic-proof," with the shakily reviewed original production playing 2,036 performances, a Broadway record for a first-run revue. Accordingly, the determined Fullerton Civic Light Opera revival of this regional staple may wow subscribers with its parade of pop, rock and R&B standards.

These, written by Leiber, Stoller and collaborators, are "Smokey Joe's" raison d'etre. Beginning with the thematic "Neighborhood" and ending with an inspirational "Stand by Me," some 40 numbers form a pocket history of urban American culture by way of oldies radio.

Swathed in designer Evan Shirk's rich lighting, the cast bops through Sha Newman's efficient direction and choreography with impressive harmonic blend. Airborne tenor Lawrence Cummings makes "I (Who Have Nothing)" an emotional high point, while Nikkema Taylor invests "Fools Fall in Love" with a fervor that seems ready for "Dreamgirls." Dominic Rambaran provides subterranean bass notes and comic ability, and Destiny Lofton sells her siren's songs with unfussy sizzle

Ron Kellum and Eugene Barry Hill swap ballads and novelty turns with professional aplomb, although, like Sandra Allen's shimmying sexpot, they are more proficient than electrifying. Kelli Provart has a potent, country-tinged voice, though readings rarely vary, and husband Mark A. Provart attacks the Elvis material with industrial-strength energy.

Regrettably, that typifies a "Cafe" that is only sporadically galvanic and too often self-delighting. Newman displays her usual skill, but the results have a perfunctory feel. Though the watch-fob-twirling "On Broadway" brings down the house, the dancing zoot suits of "Shoppin' for Clothes" are pure theme-park show, which affects the whole.

Musical director Grant Rohr's band favors brisk tempos to the point where the numbers begin to sound interchangeable. This generic ethos extends to designer Yolanda Rowell's eye-pleasing wardrobe, which eventually suggests an unusually stylish swing-choir concert.

That is likely a nonissue for families seeking light entertainment, which "Smokey Joe's Cafe" certainly offers. Whether this virtual platter party fully transcends its scratchy patches depends on your taste for popcultural nostalgia.

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`Smokey Joe's Cafe'

Where: Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Also, 7 p.m. July 22, 2 p.m. July 28

Ends: July 29

Price: $25 to $52

Contact: (714) 879-1732 or www.fclo.com

Running time: 2 hours

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