The 20th anniversary national tour of the enjoyably entertaining musical revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” housed at the Victoria Theatre courtesy of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series, thrives on warmhearted nostalgia and incredibly melodic songs by iconic tunesmiths Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Nominated for seven Tony Awards in 1995 including Best Musical and the record holder as Broadway’s longest-running musical revue, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” places the music front and center as is typical of the somewhat polarizing revue format. There is no story, arc or framework here –just 39 breezy numbers reflecting the legacy lyricist Leiber (who passed away in 2011) and composer Stoller fashioned beginning in the 1950s. Working with a diverse range of artists including Elvis Presley, The Drifters, The Coasters, The Clovers, Ben E. King, and Peggy Lee during their stellar career, the duo molded the blueprint for earnestly straightforward, toe-tapping songs about love, longing, hope, unity, and good old-fashioned rock and roll.
Fluidly directed and energetically choreographed by Chet Walker, who co-conceived and co-choreographed the 1999 Tony-winning revue “Fosse” and received a Tony nomination for choreographing the 2013 Tony-winning revival of “Pippin,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” features a colorful and vocally strong 15-member ensemble. In a pleasant change of pace which serves as a significant draw for this tour, the aforementioned, legendary Coasters are occasionally spotlighted throughout the production although they do not represent the original troupe. Even so, it is refreshing to hear such classics as “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Dance With Me,” and the title tune sung by the close knit, impressively harmonic quartet consisting of Dennis Anderson, Primo Candelara, Joe Lance Williams, and Eddie Whitfield.
Still, the core cast certainly shines individually and collectively. After all, due to the absence of a libretto, it is imperative that the story within each number resonates. Thankfully, every performer is considerably astute about selling the songs, particularly the joy or poignancy in Leiber’s lyrics. Nik Alexander, Malcolm Armwood, Robert H. Fowler, and Caliaf St. Aubyn deliver a fantastic rendition of “On Broadway,” but separately engage as well. Alexander, a prime source of comic relief, charms his way through “Shoppin’ for Clothes” and “Treat Me Nice” which ultimately makes up for his intense yet uncontrolled “I Who Have Nothing.” The wonderfully sincere Armwood aptly tugs the heart with “Love Me” and “There Goes My Baby.” The equally fine St. Aubyn does the same with “Loving You” and “Spanish Harlem.” Fowler finds the playfulness within “Little Egypt.” The admirable Vaden Thurgood effortlessly turns “Jailhouse Rock” into an infectious highlight.
Additionally, Keely Beirne, Yvette Monique Clark, Kathleen McCann, and Erin McGrath unite for an outstanding rendition of “I’m a Woman” that sizzles with sass, but have multiple opportunities to appealingly solo. In addition to nearly bringing down the house with the rousing, gospel-flavored Act 1 finale “Saved,” Clark fuels the emotional potency within the lovely, meaningful reprise of “Fools Fall in Love.” McCann, a powerhouse belter, offers knockout versions of “Don’t,” “I Keep Forgettin,’” and “Pearl’s A Singer.” The very striking McGrath seductively entices with “Trouble” and is also the lively focus of “Teach Me How to Shimmy.” The marvelously magnetic Beirne, adorned with a white feather boa, thrillingly captivates in “Don Juan” (which deservers an encore) only to return more dazzling and mesmerizing in superb lyric-driven form for the bluesy “Some Cats Know.” In the latter number, Beirne’s piercing focus and slinky strut recalls Laura Benanti’s brilliant take on Gypsy Rose Lee in the 2008 Tony-winning revival of “Gypsy.”
Elsewhere, Steve Paladie’s efficient set, Martin T. Lopez’s attractive costumes, and Brian Loesch’s effective lighting are commendable. However, musical director Todd Olson’s terrific band seems oddly cramped. On opening night, specifically at the top of Act 2 when the band was acknowledged with respective solos, it was difficult to see them as a whole. The configuration of the space for this tour is definitely questionable as if it would have been more suited for the Schuster Center.
Nonetheless, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” supplies carefree, feel-good vibes that will make you appreciate the simpler delights of a bygone era in pop music.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” continues through Nov. 23 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Act One: 45 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $25-$87. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com