Chicago Theater Review: SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ (Royal George Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 18, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – you may not recognize who they are but you sure know what they wrote: “Love Potion #9,” “Bossa Nova Baby,” “Kansas City.”  A team famed for their much-recorded singles rather than their Broadway songs, they churned out classics over the last 60 years in all pop styles – rhythm and blues, pop, jazz, cabaret, soul and especially rock ‘n’ roll. Many of their chart-busters – “Yakety-Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Young Blood,” “Along Came Jones” – were written for The Coasters, but they’re probably best known for three Elvis standards, “Loving You,” “Jailhouse Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Smokey Joe’s Café" at the Royal George, ChicagoRock” and “Hound Dog” (the last originally written in 1953 as a slow blues ballad for “Big Mama” Thornton). Indeed it seems as if the only stuff they didn’t write were torch songs; sorrow just wasn’t their style.

Premiering at the Royal George Theatre’s main stage in 1994 as Baby, That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll, this pizzazz-packed pep show, a memory revue buoyed by solid showmanship, debuted on Broadway as Smokey Joe’s Café. (Actually it was originally called D.W. Washburn’s All-Dancin’, All-Singin’, Black & White, Jive Ass Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue.) After an absence of 19 years, it’s returned almost full circle – specifically to the Royal George Theatre’s intimate cabaret space where the roots of rock ‘n’ roll are documented with nostalgic photos on the walls of the title’s endangered venue. As Vasily Deris returns to the now abandoned old joint, memories crowd around him before a happy reunion ends the bittersweet saga.

A classic jukebox-jiving, date-night show, Smokey Joe’s Cafe creates a seamless musical flow, two hours and two acts of non-stop, crowd-pleasing entertainment: Soaring solos, harmony-heavenly ballads and heart-stopping dancing and playing by the superb and unmiked nine-member ensemble and strong four-person band Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Smokey Joe’s Café" at the Royal George, Chicago(down from seven in the original), choreographed and directed by Brenda Didier.

Framed by the nostalgic “Neighborhood,” the songs become their own story as they recreate their own past. Sung by Jaymes Osborne, Justin Adair, Steven Perkins, and Deris, one section is devoted to the guy-group glories of such romps as the neon-lit “On Broadway,” the sassy strutting of “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Searchin,'” and the blues vigor of “D.W. Washburn.” The women turn up their own heat in their invincible blues version of “I’m A Woman” and Britt-Marie Sivertsen unleashes every emotion from the tear-jerking “Falling.”

Surefire novelty numbers include “Loving You” (which features a free dance with an audience member), the fortune huntress’ anthem “Don Juan,” in which Sydney Charles slinks and vogues as she sings about taking her formerly rich daddy to the proverbial cleaners, and the quarreling duet in which Deris’ placating “Treat Me Nice” is answered by Dasilva’s fiery “Hound Dog.” Another dynamite duet, “There Is Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Smokey Joe’s Café" at the Royal George, Chicagoa Rose in Spanish Harlem,” is danced to a sexy lather by Osborne and tango by Osborne and Kasey Alfonso.

As strong a showcase as Smoky Joe’s Café is for the sizzling cast, it’s a treasure trove of show-stopping solos. A “big mama” belter, Dasilva sang the stuffing out of the revival rouser “Saved” and reduced the crowd to conniptions with her roof-raising “Fool Fall in Love.” (Jennifer Hudson has another Chicago rival.) Deris lit into the lover’s lament “I Who Have Nothing” as if every note were a ticket to heaven, and Adair and Sivertsen gave a sultry take on the unrepentantly sensual “Teach Me How To Shimmy.”

The set, full of subtle period references, is by Adam Veness and the period-perfect costumes are by Bill Morey, while Michael M. Nardulli supplies the supple, gorgeous lighting.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Smokey Joe’s Café" at the Royal George, Chicago

photos by Anthony Robert La Penna

Smokey Joe’s Café – The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
SJCChicago’s presentation of Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s production
Royal George Theatre’s Cabaret
scheduled to end on May 26, 2013 EXTENDED through July 21, 2013
tickets at Box Office or Ticketmaster

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