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Friday, 13 December 2013 00:04

At Smokey Joe's, they're smokin'!

Written by Bob Wilcox
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The Details

As a friend and I were leaving Webster University's small Stage 3 after seeing "Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller," he observed that the productions of the Webster Conservatory of Theatre Arts are a great bargain. You can see terrifically talented young people, directed by top-flight theatre folks, young people who may go on to be multiple Tony Award winners. Some have them have done so. And you can see them for less than one-tenth what you'd pay to see them later on Broadway.

So it is with "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

It's a juke-box musical with the songs, and nothing but the songs, of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The show has no book or dialogue, though the songs are arranged in a kind of progression from adolescence into adulthood and then a nostalgic look back to younger days in the Neighborhood.

Leiber and Stoller flourished in the late '50s and early '60s, so I'm a little old for their music to have been the sound track of my adolescence. But I couldn't escape hearing songs like "Kansas City," "Fools Fall in Love," "On Broadway," "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Hound Dog," "There Goes My Baby, "and on and on.

Pretty amazing, when you stop to look at the list.

Leiber and Stoller drew on everything going on in American music –- doo-wop, blues, rock & roll, pop ballads, Latin beats.

And the Conservatory production incorporates those traditions too. Lara Teeter directed and choreographed, and he featured clever riffs on the moves of the period.  He encouraged delightful reactions by the performers to the words and to each other.

Music director Larry D. Pry draws lovely blends from the ensemble, as well as solos that often have that characteristic '50s pop sound. Pry leads a strong small band from the piano, and he's featured both on keyboard and vocals on " Stay A While." The next time Teeter directs at the Muny, I expect to see Pry on the Muny stage, not just in the PR office.

And the terrifically talented young people: Bethany Fay dancing up a storm on "Teach Me How to Shimmy." Mitchell Ferguson doing the bass on "Charlie Brown" and others. Charlie Ingram appearing to sing "Loving You" right to someone in the audience – lucky young lady. Adrianna Jones with a great knowing smile on numbers like "Don Juan." Amelia Jo Parish nailing the highest notes. Bailey J. Reeves fine on "Fallin'." Robert Riordan great comic character moves and an impassioned "I Who Have Nothing." Abraham T. Shaw a strong lead on several numbers. Kyle Twomey showing Elvis how to do "Jailhouse Rock." And Melissa Weyn exploring the range of the character in "Pearl's a Singer."

Thomas Haverkamp's set features signage for good places to hang out.

Tyler H. First's lighting makes smart use of follow spots in a tight space.
Yvonne Anguiano's first act costumes are '50s casual -- pleated skirts, letter jackets and leather jackets, then a dressier second act, with accompanying wigs and make-up by Emma Crafton, and a smooth sound design by Wyatt Whitham.

At "Smokey Joe's Cafe," baby, that is rock & roll. 


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