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Classic music never dies

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review

‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ takes you through an era of music

You’ve seen fancy musicals and serious dramas and classic comedies. Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and listen to the soundtrack of a generation.

(l to r) Dominique Dates, Emma Rose Tarr, Belinda Pickens, Shirley Johnston (Photos courtesy of Adriana Zuniga-Williams)

“Smokey Joe’s Café,” playing through June 9 at OnStage Playhouse, offers a cast of nine fine singers and a band of six with an evening of 37 songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Shirley Johnston directs. Don’t worry, you won’t be looking at your watch.

Leiber and Stoller wrote primarily in the ’50s, cranking out unforgettable novelty numbers like “Yakety Yak” (wherein mom lays down the law) and

“Charlie Brown” (“Why is everybody always pickin’ on me?”) as well as real standards like “Jailhouse Rock,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me.”

And let’s not forget that great classic “Little Egypt,” about the dancer who had “a ruby on her tummy and a diamond big as Texas on her toe.”

“Smokey Joe’s Café” opened in New York in 1995. Nearly five years later, it became the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history.

Jake Strohl and Emma Rose Tarr

Notice that word “revue.” Realizing it’s not a play will save you the pointless effort of trying to “make sense” of what is essentially a concert.

The set design (by Teri Brown and Chad Oakley) is simple, with movable furniture and standing pillars that are draped with filmy fabric so that one or another cast member can stand behind them. The band is to the left as you enter, and they’ve nicely toned down the decibel level so it’s not too loud in that small space.

The songs are mostly presented by two or more singers, but each singer gets a chance to shine in at least one solo. You’ll see those familiar doo-wop moves (choreographed by director/choreographer Shirley Johnson) in the group numbers.

Belinda Pickens’ “Hound Dog” will disabuse you of the notion that anybody is “cryin’ all the time” (Elvis changed the too-racy original lyrics). And you’ll love her beautiful, round sound on “Fools Fall in Love.”

Dominique Dales comes into her own in the poignant “I Keep Forgettin’” (we’re not in love anymore).

(l to r) Reggie Hutchins, Raymond Stradford III, Emma Rose Tarr, Kyle Leatherbury, Dominique Dates, Alex Salazr-Dunbar, Shirley Johnston, Jake Strohl

Emma Rose Tarr demonstrates that she can shimmy, hit those high notes and belt out a song with the best of them.

Shirley Johnston gets to sing some of my favorites: the melancholy “Pearl’s a Singer,” the cheeky “Don Juan” and the suggestive “Some Cats Know” (“Some cats know how to stir up the feeling. But if a cat don’t know, a cat don’t know”).

The women get their chance to shine together in the triumphant “I’m a Woman” – celebrating the strength of women — which may have inspired Helen Reddy and Ray Burton’s “I Am Woman.”

Tenor Kyle Leatherbury takes advantage of his ringing falsetto on “I (Who Have Nothing).”

(front) Kyle Leatherbury (back l to r) Raymond Stradford III, Alex Salazar-Dunbar, Jake Strohl, Reggie Hutchins

Raymond Stradford III shines (with the less-than-interested Dominique) in the desperate “Love Me/Don’t.”

Reggie Hutchins has great stage presence, and his lead singing on “Poison Ivy,” “Loving You” and “Dance with Me” is excellent.

Jake Strohl and Alexander Salazar-Dunbar were both in OnStage’s wonderful production of “Spring Awakening” last year. Strohl is a fine tenor and a good actor.

Baritone Salazar-Dunbar seemed a bit tentative on opening night and doesn’t move as gracefully as the others. But he came through vocally on the amusing “You’re the Boss” with Dominique.

“Smokey Joe’s Café” isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s a fine evening’s entertainment.

— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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