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‘Smokey Joe’s’ captures sweet sounds of an era at Venice Theatre

By Jay Handleman, Herald Tribune, Jan. 10, 2018

Musical revue of songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller runs through Feb. 4

A joyous spirit fills the Venice Theatre’s new production of the musical revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a celebration of the early rock-era hits written for many different artists by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

From “Jailhouse Rock” to “On Broadway” and “Stand by Me,” the show has a wide musical variety, aside from a couple of songs that have essentially the same melody but with different lyrics or titles.

The theater enjoyed a big hit with the same show just six years ago, but rather than reprise Brad Wages’ production, it hired Dewayne Barrett to put a fresh and vibrant spin on it.

Edwin Watson, a tall performer with the deep and resonant voice that’s so crucial to some of the harmonies, is the only cast member returning from the previous production.

Barrett and musical director Rebecca Heintz, who leads a fine onstage band, have put together a strong singing ensemble who sound terrific playing with the harmonies. Some of the cast members have big voices that reach impressive notes but occasionally veer slightly out of control at key moments.

But that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the music, the characterizations the performers create for each song and Barrett’s impressive staging.

With some metal frameworks and multiple-levels (for the musicians and performers), Tim Wisgerhof’s set looks like an attractive combination of a train station, a city apartment complex and what you see in the opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live.”

‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ Music and lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Directed and choreographed by Dewayne Barrett. Reviewed Jan. 9 at Venice Theatre, 140 W. Tampa Ave., Venice. 941-488-1115; venicestage.com

It leaves plenty of room down front for the movement and dance routines Barrett has created to make even non-dancers look like they know what they’re doing. During “Trouble,” for example, Tahlia Chinault does a lot of kicks and turns, while her singing partner Cherise James does less strenuous but still appropriate movements, so that they both end up looking graceful and elegant.

Noelia Altamirano shines in a poignant version of “Fools Fall in Love,” and Alana Opie brings out the power and emotions of “Pearl’s a Singer” about a faded performer. Nidal Zarour brings some tender sentiment to “Spanish Harlem,” as Chinault dances in a flowing red dress with a rose between her teeth. Marquise Atkinson has an impish quality in several numbers, particularly playing the drunken “D.W. Washburn” who sings about his troubles before he gets “Saved” during a gospel routine performed by Altamirano and the cast.

Ish Harris, who performs with an infectious enthusiasm throughout the show, pairs nicely in a counterpoint duet with Opie in which he sings “Love Me” and she performs “Don’t.” And Dennis Clark captures the Elvis spirit performing “Jailhouse Rock.” But it’s in the group numbers that the cast members sound best, from the tender nostalgia of “Neighborhood” through the finale of “Stand by Me.”

Meg Ferguson’s costumes suit the characterizations, providing alternately casual and dressy looks that recall the period from the 1950s through the 1960s, and John Michael Andzulis’ lighting, including colorful chaser lights that ring the proscenium, provide the right mood.

 

 

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