Chicago Theater Review: SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ (Theo Ubique)

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by Dan Zeff on October 16, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


When Smokey Joe’s Café opened on Broadway in 1995, the critics were only mildly impressed, and suggested that this revue of rock “n” roll songs composed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller would be better served by a small club setting than a large Broadway theater. Audiences thought otherwise, and the show ran on Broadway for more than 2,000 performances as well as touring large theaters across the country, including a stop in Chicago’s Loop.

Still, the critics had a point. Smokey Joe’s Café might be at least as comfortable in a small cabaret setting as in a large Broadway house. The current revival at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre underscores that point. The Theo Ubique theater is nothing if not intimate. The production fits snugly and naturally into the tiny playing space, with the performers utilizing the aisles as well as the small stage throughout the evening. The compressed setting allows plenty of eye contact between the performers and the audience and even permits a player to select a lady from the audience for a bit of impromptu dancing.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE at Theo Ubique in ChicagoLeiber and Stiller were the Rodgers and Hart of rock during the 1950’s and 1960’s, turning out one hit after another, including several of Elvis Presley’s early blockbusters. Smokey Joe’s Café strings together about three dozen of the team’s songs. There is no spoken dialogue and no narrative line to the evening. It’s just a survey of the duo’s best numbers, and they are irresistible.

The Leiber/Stoller catalogue includes such first generation rock classics as “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Kansas City,” “On Broadway,” and “Spanish Harlem.” There are the Elvis anthems like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” (as good a pure rock ‘n’ roll song as was every written). There is a delightful brash humor in “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.” And while the early rock genre was saturated with soppy love songs, mostly about teeny bopper females getting their hearts broken, Leiber and Stoller wrote songs about women you didn’t want to mess with. Consider “Poison Ivy,” “Trouble,” and “I’m a Woman,” a song that should stand just as tall in the feminist repertoire as “Respect.”

The revue underscores just how much fun those early years of rock ‘n’ roll really were. The Leiber/Stoller songbook is toe tapping, and their lyrics crackle with wit. The music wasn’t worried about social significance. The team wanted to entertain and give singers some showcase opportunities to raise the rafters.

As with the Broadway original, the Theo Ubique show features an ensemble of nine performers, five male and four female. The cast is young and enthusiastic, and mostly sings decently enough to bring the songs home. The best voice belonged to Sydney Charles, who was underused in the production. The other cast members were Justin Adair, Kasey Alfonso, TJ Crawford, Vasily Deris, Jaymes Osborne, Steven Perkins, Britt-Marie Sivertsen, and Tamara Anderson (standing in for Robin K. DaSilva).

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE at Theo Ubique in Chicago

Director-choreographer Brenda Didier concocted numerous jaunty dance bits that demonstrate that her performers hoof at least as well as they sing. Sivertsen was particularly good in the sexy “Teach Me How to Shimmy” number. The musical accompaniment comes from a nifty quartet seated just off stage, led by honking saxophonist Joshua Therriault and pianist/music director Jeremy Ramey.

The physical production centers mostly on Bill Morey’s costumes, grungy in the first act and dressier in the second act. The set consisted mostly of movable props. This is not a big scenic show. The music takes care of business without any elaborate stage pageantry. As usual, the informality of the Theo Ubique experience is enhanced by the performers mingling with the crowd as waiters or just stopping by to chat.

At my performance, the audience was dominated by senior citizens who doubtless danced to Leiber and Stoller’s songs at their high school proms. But the loudest and most exuberant reaction came from a clutch of youngsters whose parents might not even have met when the songs were first recorded. The young people recognized quality when they heard it. For them, Smokey Joe’s Café isn’t a nostalgia trip, it’s a glorious compendium of rock ‘n’ roll at its most pleasurable. Amen to that.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE at Theo Ubique in Chicago

photos by David Heimann

Smokey Joe’s Café
Theo Ubique
ends on Nov. 11, 2012
for tickets call 773-728-7529 or visit Theo Ubique

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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