Smokey Joe’s Café: The Sound of Lieber and Stoller at Arena Stage is more than your average jukebox musical. While some lyrics and the choreography present a “taste” issue, the show is filled with solid performances and great music. Smokey Joe’s Café features many songs from the catalogue of songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller doesn’t tell any particular story, but takes the audience on a journey in rock and roll and R&B from the 1950s and 1960s.
The musical performances are the main focus of the show and many are stellar. “Ruby Baby,” “On Broadway” and “There Goes My Baby” are just a few of the larger group numbers that really soar. Local treasure Nova Y. Payton throws down an amazing version of “Hound Dog” and her “Love Me/Don’t” duet with Stephawn P. Stephens is breathtaking. Levi Kreis performs with energy and passion throughout the performance but truly shines in “Jailhouse Rock” performing with a charisma and certainly piano skills that would have made Elvis Presley himself jealous.
The costumes were my favorite technical element of Smokey Joe’s Café at Arena Stage. They accented the music and era perfectly.
Smokey Joe’s Café at Arena Stage does a great job of performing music that people know and love. While I’m not a fan of some numbers (“Little Egypt,” “Trouble” and “Teach Me How to Shimmy”, in particular) overall the show is fun, quick-paced and closes with a sensational version of “Stand By Me”.
Kari Liked: The music was amazing, the performances especially of Nova Y. Payton, Levi Kreis and the costumes!
Kari Didn’t Like: The overly sensual dancing in some numbers and the taste level of some lyrics.
Popular music is an important part of everyone’s life. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote some of the most memorable songs in the history of pop music, and Smokey Joe’s Café at Arena Stage highlights a lot of these great songs. The show has a lot of highs, but also a lot of lows.
Smokey Joe’s Café’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: song choice. While some wonderful songs were chosen to be included, such as “Jailhouse Rock,” “I Keep on Forgettin’,” and “Stand by Me,” there were also some less entertaining or inappropriate songs like “Trouble,” “Teach Me How to Shimmy” and “Little Egypt.”
The band performed very well and was great to hear. However, they are also the source of some other big problems with this show. Not the band themselves, as I mentioned, they were fantastic, but their positioning was very problematic. The band was placed right in the middle of the stage, creating some big problems for the choreography. It can be hard enough to block shows in the round, but Arena Stage routinely does a great job. In this case however, that one choice led to there being a lot of forced walking around the remaining circle so everyone could get a good look at what was going on. This led to the choreography feeling forced and boring when it wasn’t inappropriate. Which it was on more than one occasion. This show is not family friendly, so I wouldn’t recommend taking your kids to see it.
The actors all did admirable jobs with what they were given to perform. Nova Y. Payton did her normally stellar job (her rendition of “Hound Dog” was a breath of fresh air), and Michael J. Mainwaring was an especially expressive standout as well. Levi Kreis gave a rocking good show, especially during “Jailhouse Rock.” Austin Colby and Stephawn P. Stephens also turned in very entertaining performances.
RJ Liked: “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” and “Love Me/Don’t”
RJ Didn’t Like: Just about all the choreography, “Little Egypt,” “Don Juan”
Smokey Joe’s Cafe is currently being performed at Arena Stage from April 25th to June 8th. For more and information and tickets visit Arena Stage here.
(Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets for this review, however all opinions are our own.)