If the sentimental musical journey “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” doesn’t make your toes tap, fingers snap or hands clap, you might want to check your pulse.
A delightful confection that includes 40 melodic pop songs by legendary lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller, this deluxe music revue provides a welcome upbeat evening of entertainment.
Nine consummate performers crisply conveyed the duo’s unmistakable sounds spanning three decades, reviving an American soundtrack that was part of many lives in the sold-out crowd. The numbers, ranging from bluesy ballads like “Fools Fall in Love” to catchy ditties like Elvis’ hit “Hound Dog” and “Poison Ivy,” demonstrated their timeless appeal, and were presented in an inspired, vibrant way.
What distinguishes Stages St. Louis’ interpretation of Broadway’s longest-running music revue is the clever staging by director Stephen Bourneuf, alternating silky, soulful love songs and peppy rhythm-and-blues hits with dynamic dance numbers and humorous exchanges.
The show is constructed as a setting in which a group of friends wax nostalgic on their lives and loves. New York actors Emily Afton (Patty), Richard Crandle (Victor), Josh Dawson (Ken), Brent Michael Diroma (Michael), Keisha Gilles (B.J.), Kent Overshown (Adrian), J. Nycole Ralph (Brenda), Jason Samuel (Fred) and Bronwyn Tarboton (DeLee) strike the right moods and their varied styles beguile.
They shine individually and collectively, with a sensational “On Broadway” and exuberant ‘Jailhouse Rock” big crowd-pleasing numbers. Richard Crandle, as Victor, soars on the powerful “I Who Have Nothing” while Keisha Gilles as B.J. belted out the gospel number “Saved.”
Bourneuf’s fluid direction ensured that the tempo never sagged while the production’s elements kept it interesting. James Wolk’s retro-cool scenic design evoked do-wop and old neighborhood ties under a solo street lamp, while a nightclub tableau conjured up bygone glamour. Matthew McCarthy’s lighting design accentuated various atmospheres while Brad Musgrove’s vintage costumes captured the periods.
The choreographer by Belleville native Peggy Taphorn and Bourneuf is a masterful mix of smooth moves and bouncy beats, with “Teach Me How to Shimmy” a doozy, for not just Bronwyn Tarboton and Brent Michael Diroma, but the white go-go dress with the movable fringe. It’s an eye-popping knockout.
The prolific songwriters, inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, were part of the renowned Brill Building stable that influenced popular music in the 1950s and ’60s, and collaborated with Ben E. King on “Stand By Me” and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil on “On Broadway.”
Phil Spector wrote “Spanish Harlem” with Leiber, and that number is a dazzler, utilizing a red scrim, a sultry dancer, and a sleek ballet.
The spirit celebrating a stunning amount of the great American soundtrack easily won over the ready-to-rock patrons, and was a marvelous way to mark Stages’ 100th production in its 29th year.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”
Who: Stages St. Louis
When: Through June 28
Where: Robert G. Reim Theatre at the Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 S. Geyer Road, St. Louis
Box office: 314-821-2407