'Smokey Joe,' fired up and fun Review: Talent, energy overflow in Broadway rock-and-roll revue at the Mechanic Theatre.

December 12, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

If you're "Searchin' " for an escape from the holiday blahs, then "Stay a While" at the Mechanic Theatre and see "Smokey Joe's Cafe" 'cause, baby, "That Is Rock & Roll" -- and not just "Yakety Yak."

These are only a few of the 40 songs by rock-and-roll pioneers Jerry Leiber (a Baltimore native) and Mike Stoller in this hit Broadway revue, whose nine-person touring cast is as polished as the New York original.

Leiber and Stoller revues have been tried before. There were two in London in the 1980s and one in Seattle a few years ago. Nothing clicked, however, until "Smokey Joe's Cafe." Though the songs haven't been re-thought with the originality of "The World Goes 'Round," the Kander and Ebb revue that played the Mechanic in 1993, "Smokey Joe's" nonetheless displays a good blend of humor and romance, neat segues, slick direction by Jerry Zaks and clever choreography by Joey McKneely.

The show begins with an easy-going rendition of "Neighborhood." Then it immediately shifts to high gear as Trent Kendall, Ashley Howard Wilkinson, Darrian C. Ford and Eugene Fleming launch into a hot four-part "Young Blood," with voices as harmonious and moves as synchronized as Motown in its heyday.

Despite the absence of plot, many of the show's songs -- particularly novelty numbers such as "Love Potion #9" and "Little Egypt" -- are mini-plays in themselves. (For some reason, however, the title song is only glossed over.) In addition, the revue is structured with one song frequently leading into another. The wino in "D.W. Washburn," for example, winds up being "Saved" in the very next song.

Ford, who plays the wino, also plays the poor lost soul in several other comedy numbers. He's the nebbish of a sleuth in "Searchin'" and the goofy shopper with bad credit in "Shoppin' for Clothes" (a hilarious number in which he dances with three disembodied men's suits). Ford's versatility comes as a pleasant surprise, however, when he pours out his heart in an aching "I (Who Have Nothing)," one of Leiber and Stoller's best songs.

Reva Rice is another performer who portrays a recurring character. In the first act's "Don Juan," she enters dragging a bentwood chair and a gigantic feather boa and teasing the audience; in act two she returns in the same sultry guise for "Some Cats Know."

Other standout performances include Kim Cea's Janis Joplin-esque "Pearl's a Singer"; Wilkinson's rumbling operatic bass contribution to more than a dozen songs; Fleming's suave "Loving You"; and Alltrinna Grayson's snarling "Hound Dog" (with Leiber's original lyrics rather than the nonsensical ones recorded by Elvis Presley).

For that matter, though Elvis catapulted Leiber and Stoller to stardom, the King was not much in evidence at Tuesday's opening. Jerry Tellier, who -- based on his Broadway counterpart -- would have put a Presley stamp on "Jailhouse Rock," took sick at intermission. His replacement, Brent Davin Vance, delivered a creditable, but un-Elvis-like, interpretation.

The show's ensemble work, including conductor Reggie Royal's seven-piece on-stage band, is tight. A few numbers, however, deserve particular mention -- the proud, spirited collaboration of Cea, Grayson, Rice and Mary Ann Herman- sen on "I'm a Woman" and the smooth delivery of "On Broadway" by, once again, the quartet of Kendall, Wilkinson, Ford and Fleming.

Leiber and Stoller served as consultants on "Smokey Joe's Cafe," and the show certainly does justice to Stoller's catchy tunes and Leiber's witty lyrics, which, in the case of "On Broadway," proved prophetic.

One line from this song, by the way, promises: "I won't quit till I'm a star." If that were truly the case, it would soon be quitting time for this entire talented cast. "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is such rousing fun, it's like watching your favorite oldies but goodies come to vTC life. One of the only problems is resisting the urge to sing along.

'Smokey Joe's Cafe'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 22

Tickets: $35-$55

Call: (410) 752-1200

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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