SmokeyJoes article

 

100 performances and still going strong 29 years later, Stages St. Louis opens it 2015 season with Smokey Joe's Café. The show is a musical review of the body of work produced by the legendary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. While the production had some struggles, it also served up some extremely moving moments that transported me to musical nirvana.


Being the musical connoisseur that I am, I have always had an undying passion for timeless music and emotive vocals. When the two combine it reverberates in my soul and I feel every note, every nuance. Smokey Joe's Café is crammed full of some of my personal favorites. Gems like “Kansas City,” “On Broadway,” and “Jailhouse Rock” shaped my musical palette into what it is today.


The fact that Smokey Joe's Café is solely a musical review is both the production's strength and also its weakness. For music lovers like myself, a jukebox musical of this nature is highly entertaining. But if you go into this production looking for some common thread to join all of these chart topping hits together, you could leave feeling somewhat bewildered. The fact that each of the performers even had character names left me confused seeing how they never refer to each other at all during the production.


The appeal of this production lies in the performances of these legendary numbers and how well the cast harmonizes - or jives - with one another. With a cast of five males and four ladies, I have to say - without a doubt - the ladies' performances took top honors.


I think I might be a jinx. It appears that the majority of shows I attend seem to have audio problems. It was almost as if none of the male performers were mic'd properly. While the Robert G. Reim Theater is not a small theater, it is intimate enough that the audience should have no problem hearing the performers. More than once when the men were performing as a group, I caught myself straining to hear them. The four women had no such problem as their voices were big enough to fill the auditorium with their scrumptious vocals.


Time to dole out some medicine then we will get to the sugar.


Each of Brent Michael Diroma's performances were simply too stiff. His voice was pleasant enough (and his dashing good looks are reminiscent of Zac Efron) but he didn't appear to be feeling the music nor the choreography. Furthermore, his delivery of “Jailhouse Rock” failed to impress. The song is too big for his range and left me thinking the song should have been performed by Kent Overshown – who I will get to in a moment.


Josh A. Dawson was neither here nor there for me. While he performed each of his songs with respectable ability, he failed to standout in any notable way.


Is Jason Samuel a baritone masquerading a bass vocalist? The one time he showcased his higher register was fantastic, but the rest of the time when he attempted to deliver that signature booming bass voice he seemed to run out of gas. While I applaud his attempt to achieve that deep bass tonality, more than once his delivery left me longing for more.


Now onto the highlights of the night.


As mentioned before, Kent Overshown stood out among the men as his voice (and volume) shined in numbers like, “Love Me / Don’t,” “On Broadway,” and “Love Potion No 9.”


Overshown was slightly overshadowed by the immensely talented Richard Crandle. Crandle showcased his comedic acting skills in “D.W. Washburn” charmed the audience with his vocals in “Shoppin' for Clothes” then turned around and slayed the audience with an emotional rendition of “I (Who Have Nothing).”


As an ensemble and as individuals, the ladies of the show excelled on several levels. The standout ensemble number of the entire night was “I'm a Woman.” Each of the ladies were sickening as they served up an overabundance of sultry, sexy vocals.


Bronwyn Tarboton brought sex appeal both vocally and physically to each of her numbers such as “Trouble” and “Teach Me How To Shimmy.” J Nycole Ralph stood out for her sexy, comedic vocals in “Don Jaun” and “Some Cats Know.”


The unexpected surprise of the night was Emily Afton. I was not at all prepared for her red-hot R&B vocals. Her vocal delivery during “Pearl's a Singer” was reminiscent of the late Janis Joplin. She has a pop sensibility in her voice that is textured with this deep soulful tone that is completely hypnotic. Bravo to you Ms. Afton for nearly stealing the show with this single performance. I would be remiss not to mention her performance of “I Keep Forgettin” - another standout performance.


Every time Keisha Gilles hit the stage she commanded the audience's attention. She served gospel realness in “Saved,” soulful attitude in “Hound Dog, and vocal brilliance in “Fools Fall In Love.” In my opinion she should record the reprise of the latter as a single and release it today. To put it simply, Ms. Gilles vocals gave me life.


The other factor that can make or break this production is the energy of the audience. Hoot and holler and give these actors as much energy as they are giving you onstage. This is not a show that should have polite applause - let them have it so they can give it back to you in droves.


While this show might appeal to a more mature audience, true music aficionados of all ages should be able to enjoy the songs – and performances of this gratifying production of Smokey Joe's Café.


Smokey Joe's Café plays through June 28th. For show times and ticket prices please visit stagesstlouis.org.


You can follow me on Twitter @ReviewerJim

 

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