Smokey Joe’s Café at the Herberger Theater is a rollicking musical revue

I've seen Smokey Joe's Café too many times over the past decade to have been very excited about attending Black Theatre Troupe's current production last weekend. And as I sat in the Herberger Stage West, staring at Thom Gilseth's shabbily constructed curtain drop, I thought, If the set design is any indication, this might be the first time I've seen a crummy version of this show.

I was mistaken. While Gilseth's set was sort of tatty, and although all the women out-sang and out-danced most of the men in the cast, this Smokey Joe's Café was as solid as each of the other three professional productions I've seen in recent years. Phillip Fazio's relentless, top-notch direction is partly to blame for the show's success because, when a number was something other than engaging (and there were precious few that weren't), it was over quickly and we were on to the next.

Smokey Joe's Café is that rarest of musical revues: a collection of pop standards (in this case 39 of the best-known tunes by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) that attempts to tell a story without dialogue or a gimmicky through-line to move things along. Instead, the tunes are arranged in such a way that they describe a group of friends who fall in and out of love with one another without ever exchanging a single word outside of those contained in tunes by this prolific hit-making duo.

Robert Kolby Harper's choreography here is some of his best to date. He creates homages to the sort of synchronized routines popularized by the Coasters (who recorded many of Leiber and Stoller's biggest hits), as with the smooth chorus moves he's created for "Poison Ivy" in Act One. And where Harper typically crams an example of nearly every known form of dance into his shows, in this production he displays admirable restraint, showcasing jazzy moves that dovetail nicely with the show's score. And, okay, so there's a ballet number in Act Two, but it's one that works beautifully with "Spanish Harlem," and features a heartfelt solo by Rhys Gilyeat.

Gilyeat is among the cast's standouts. His athletic dance moves and strong singing voice overshadow those of his four male castmates; if this production has a flaw, it's that its female cast outshines their song-and-dance partners. I always find Chelé Watkins captivating, and she's so good here that she even made me like "Don Juan," a Leiber-Stoller song I've never been fond of. She performs this pouty paean to a sugar daddy in a nightclub setting, with a chair and a feather boa; but rather than aping Eartha Kitt, as I've seen most singers of this song do, Watkins makes it her own. And after a couple of pleasant turns, Shannon Pringle really gets to shine with "Pearl's a Singer," in which she underplays a tune that, in past productions I've seen, is usually shrieky and frenetic.

That any of these performers can keep up at all with Charity Dawson is saying something. Her big, bluesy vocals turn pretty pop ditties like "Fools Fall in Love" into showstoppers, and her sly asides to the audience make campy routines (like the setup for the heal-my-soul "Saved") seem fresher and funnier than they are. She's ably backed by John Massaro's slick, funky five-piece band, another reason that this production soars. After awhile I stopped noticing the ugly, amateurish set design and was able to sit back and enjoy one of my favorite Grammy-winning scores. You can, too.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela