Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
"Smokey Joe's Cafe," the new jukebox musical at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, is pure music machine. The show lets very little stand in the way of 30-plus songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, songwriters who had their heyday in the 1950s and '60s. A cast of nine backed by a six-piece band puts a gentle theatrical sheen on songs like "Jailhouse Rock" and "Spanish Harlem" to name a few. The set by Rep's Mike Nichols is more or less a riser with a set of stairs backed by a screen that changes colors depending on the mood. Even Ron Hutchins, carrying the title of director and choreographer, doesn't fuss up the proceedings with over-elaborate stage business.
But sitting through the entirety of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" gives you an appreciation, most of all, of Leiber and Stoller's catalog. The pair didn't write every song you love on classic radio, but it's hard not to feel like it when the show is over. There's a point there in the second act where you want to go "Wow, they wrote that one, too?" and they haven't even hit "Stand by Me." Leiber and Stoller were songwriters in the glorious old-fashioned sense. They wrote novelty songs ("Charlie Brown"), straightforward romances, hot rock numbers and tunes for all types of performers be they black or white.
The cast tackles the songs and the many dance numbers that go with them with the enthusiasm that you expect from young pros. Eric LaJuan Summers not only sings his lungs out on "I (Who Have Nothing)" but also plays in winning fashion the closest the show has to a recurring character — a man who's had a few too many — in two songs at the end of the first act. Krisha Marcano has two solos — "Don Juan" and "Some Cats Know" — that aren't Leiber and Stoller's most well known songs, but she makes them show standouts. Alltrinna Grayson would likely be considered the star, as she possesses a voice that's unnaturally powerful. Her rendition of "Hound Dog" is sass personified. But Grayson and others in the cast with her sometimes mistakenly equate vocal power and volume with greatness.
It's likely some theater buffs will be put off by "Smokey Joe's Cafe" altogether.
However much the Rep dresses it up, it's just a series of songs. But it is also good to remember that theater since the age of the Greeks has embraced various entertainments that often look and sound nothing like straightforward drama. One might wish that somebody could connect the dots that seem to be there in Leiber and Stoller's songs (there is a lot of stardust and wanderlust in their songbook) and make for a more substantial evening. But "Smokey Joe's Cafe" has succeeded in the past and will likely do so here in 2010 in Little Rock because it doesn't pretend to be anything but what it is — memorable songs sung well.
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