Picture this: You are looking back at the 1950s, a time when doo-wop had taken the world by storm. It was a time when the girls wore tailored dresses and the men wore belts and jackets. (Belts!)
You are looking at the cement stoops of some brownstones, lights on in some of the windows. On a catwalk above the action sits a live band, so you hope you are going to hear some good music. But when the singers take the stage for the first song and start dancing, you know that Theatre Raleigh’s production of Smokey Joe’s Café is going to be a great night of entertainment!
A lot of amazing music came out in the 1950s, and a lot of it, it seems, was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. You may not know their names, but I bet you know their songs: “Love Potion No. 9,” “Poison Ivy,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” … the list goes on and on.
With 39 of their songs covered in the evening, there is no room for dialog, so don’t expect a play. The amazing thing about Theatre Raleigh’s rendition of Smokey Joe’s Café, playing May 31-June 4 and June 7-11 in the Kennedy Theatre in Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, is that each song is presented through a brief vignette featuring one or more singers, tightly choreographed dance, and amazing vocals. So, in essence, the audience gets 39 little plays in one evening!
These singers are truly gifted, and we were impressed with how seamlessly they moved from song to song. Emotions ranged from the hysterically funny to the heartrending.
Some highlights included a very funny “Charlie Brown,” featuring the shenanigans of Randy Cain and his deep baritone asking the famous question, “Why is everybody always picking on me?”; a seductive rendition of “Don Juan” by a stellar Annelise Cepero (“Don Juan, your money’s gone, and when your money’s gone, your baby’s gone! “); and a solo by Saidu Sinlah of “I (Who Have Nothing)” that was so moving that he had people jumping out of their seats to applaud.
But it is unfair to single out just these three, because, each member of the group had moments to shine! Along with those mentioned above, Melvin Gray, Jr.; Cassidy Hamilton; John Langley; Darius Jordan Lee; Kate McMillan; and Yolanda Rabun are all seasoned professionals who brought their A-game to the stage.
In fact, Rabun even took all of us to church in “Saved“, replete with stained glass windows, a resistant sinner, and choir gowns. Please forgive the pun, but it was heavenly (and a load of laughs)!
Not only were there solos, but when they sang in groups, the audience got the beauty of doo-wop, with the hand gestures, dance moves, and sweet, sweet harmonies of the 1950s. These singers had the audience members laughing, cheering, and literally dancing in the isles!
Kudos to director Julia Murney and choreographer Abbey O’Brien, who deftly transported the audience with every movement and every song. Watch for the subtle “rock-paper-scissors” game and arm-wrestling match during Annelise Cepero and Randy Cain’s take on “You’re the Boss.” It was inspired.
Lighting designer Jenni Mann Becker and scenic designer Chris Bernier together created a subtle canvas to let the performers talents truly shine. And we would be remiss if we did not mention the band: Dale Baker, Marc Davis, Josh Endlich, Wayne Leechford, and John Simonetti. They easily handled the material and were the backbone of the evening.
From the Department of Picky-Picky: For “Jailhouse Rock,” a set of jail cell bars rolled onstage, however, the rubbery quality of the bars made it appear that “Elvis” was going to make a quick escape by bending them, and the platform seemed a little unsteady for the action. However, the song itself was good, even if the set was a little distracting. But this was a minor blip on the radar of what is a particularly wonderful show.
Can you tell that we had a great time? Except for a few opening-night hiccups with the microphones early in the show, it was truly a spectacular performance and a toe-tapping, rib-tickling, laugh-out-loud, cheering, wow-wasn’t that great kinda evening! We hope you bop out now and grab seats while you can!
SECOND OPINION: June 1st Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article153910129.html; and May 25th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh preview by the BWW News Desk: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/Come-OUT-This-June-with-Theatre-Raleighs-SMOKEY-JOES-CAFE-20170525.
Theatre Raleigh presents SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ: THE SONGS OF LEIBER AND STOLLER at 8 p.m. June 2, 2 and 8 p.m. June 3, 3 p.m. June 4, 8 p.m. June 7-9, 2 and 8 p.m. June 10, and 3 p.m. June 11 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theatre in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $32.50 ($30.50 students, seniors 65+, and and active-duty military personnel), except $26 per person for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-832-9997, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://theatreraleigh.secure.force.com/ticket#details_a0S610000035dSdEAI. GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-832-9997 or email@example.com.
2017 SEASON: http://www.theatreraleigh.com/2017-season/.
NOTE: Theatre Raleigh has scheduled a special $40-per-person OUT Night performance at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 8th, with 20 percent of the proceeds going to the LGBT Center of Raleigh. The OUT Night ticket price includes a postshow Party on the Patio, with cabaret performances by Greg Moore, Kevin O’Barr, Theatre Raleigh artistic director Lauren Kennedy, and others.
Smokey Joe’s Café (1995 Broadway and 1996 West End musical revue): http://www.rnh.com/show/93/Smokey-Joes-Cafe–The-Songs-of-Leiber-and-Stoller (Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization page), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/smokey-joes-cafe-8112 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokey_Joe%27s_Cafe (Wikipedia).
Jerry Leiber (lyricist, 1933-2011): http://www.leiberstoller.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/jerry-leiber-12041 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Leiber_and_Mike_Stoller (Wikipedia).
Mike Stoller (composer, 1933-): http://www.leiberstoller.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/mike-stoller-12452 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Leiber_and_Mike_Stoller (Wikipedia).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.