Opera House Theatre Company brings “Smokey Joe’s Café” to the main stage of Thalian Hall this summer. The works of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is a musical revue, so it has no plot. Instead, it is a collection of some of the most beloved songs of 20th century music: “Jailhouse Rock,” “Kansas City,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “Yakety Yak,” “Spanish Harlem” … the list goes on.
Perhaps what makes the evening most special for Opera House fans is Lorene Walsh. Walsh has served as the musical director leading the orchestra pit for Opera House for well over a decade. Did you love the orchestra in “Les Mis”? Thank Lorene Walsh. Did you walk out of “Oklahoma!” or “Chicago” humming along? Thank Lorene Walsh. It is a hard job to do and an even harder one to explain, but a music director is an essential piece to mounting any of these shows. One of the things we, as audiences, tend to take for granted is just how lucky we are to have live music for Opera House shows. It is a very real expense but it makes all the difference in production quality.
Walsh has been the essential and unseen hero of many musical scores for many years. Due to health challenges, she has been on sabbatical for a while, but “Smokey Joe’s” is one of her favorite shows, and she has rallied to come back to do this one in conjunction with Tim McCoy. It is a gift she is giving our community, and to share this show with her is the way we can say thank you for all musical journeys she has guided us through over the years. So, thank you, Lorene. With you, Val Jean and Fantine’s voices soared my prayers to heaven; Curly’s ode to the most beautiful mornin’ warmed my heart and “Chicago” sizzled. Some of the best nights of life came from your work. It’s great to hear you play again. Thank you.
The show itself, though: Does it rock? Not really. It’s kind of like if Lawrence Welk produced “Smokey Joe’s Café.” About half the cast are in a very sweet and lovely show at a state fair. The other half are in a different show completely. There are some amazing stand-out numbers and performances, but there are also moments that made me scratch my head. Like, “Jailhouse Rock” … why wasn’t Joe Basquill or Mathis Turner cast for the Elvis song? They’re age-appropriate for the role. With “Little Egypt,” Turner does recreate the song from the Elvis film “Roustabout.” It’s the perfect song for him and combines funny lyrics that let him show off his penchant for comedy with a fun vehicle for his beautiful voice.
Maybe I am partial to songs that tell a story. Sydney Smith Martin’s rendition of “Pearl’s a Singer,” the story of a failed night-club singer, is riveting. It was a big hit for Elkie Brooks in the ‘70s; though, I love the rendition Bernadette Peters recorded. Martin is so young and beautiful that watching her sing the song is not so much a lament for a lost life, as it is a cautionary tale passed on to her. She sells it with tremendous passion—it is not a fate she will submit to easily; she will go down fighting and I believe her completely.
Fracaswell Hyman on stage is a wonder; go buy a ticket to see this man on stage. At first I thought Hyman was a comic genius. Then he played Troy Maxton in August Wilson’s “Fences” at Big Dawg earlier in the year and the magnitude of his dramatic performance shook me for days afterward. Now, apparently, he’s a gifted singer and dancer, too! Is there anything he can’t do? He’s got great comedic timing, so his rendition of “There Goes My Baby” is the moment of laughter the audience needs about half way through Act 2, when there have been some pretty heavy weight songs tearing at the heartstrings.
Earlier he serenades Elisa Eklof Smith with “Treat Me Nice” and sets her up for a roaring comeback with “Hound Dog.” She’s got a deep, powerful voice that needs something it can dig into and work around a bit. Is it any surprise one of the two songs that showcased her voice the best was a hit for Big Mama Thornton? Not that anyone can, or ever will sing like Mama, but Smith gives a performance that manages to capture the response a woman would be justified to give Hyman under the circumstances. She makes the audience take up her cause.
Smith does well with songs that have a context, like the response to Hyman, she really sells “Saved,” a gospel salvation number in response to “D.W. Washburn” the story of a hapless drunk played by Joe Basquill.
“He’s got a lot of subtlety to the acting side of that song,” my date commented; it was his favorite part of the show. Basquill has a luminescence on stage and audiences will not want to peel their eyes from him.
Tricked out in a sparkly gold, skin-tight jumpsuit, with a feather boa that escaped from Dame Edna’s closet, Samantha Ray Mifsud captivates in “Don Juan”—the story of a formerly wealthy man whose mistress is leaving him. Her relationship with the chair she is sitting on starts looking something like Sally Bowles doing “Mein Herr” in “Cabaret” and ends looking much more like a moment from “Evita.” She’s so beautiful and sexy, even if she didn’t sing elegantly, the number would be a success.
One of the high points of the show is “Spanish Harlem,” performed by Mifsud and Jason Aycock. Aycock serenades a beauty who has captured his heart and desire, to nurture and protect. It’s a lovely scene and he brings lots of class and gentility to it, but the best part is the dance sequence. Aycock has been dancing since he could walk, and though we frequently get to see him dance in musicals, it is rare to see him do partner work and lifts with someone of equal skill. Watching skilled dancers perform is mesmerizing, and they make it look so beautiful and effortless it leaves one thinking anyone could do it. But it wouldn’t look as beautiful or graceful.
Hands down, the song of the evening that crushed my heart and brought tears to my eyes was Terrill Williams singing “I (Who Have Nothing).” He sits on the staircase and delivers his heart on a platter, wrapped in a velvety voice that is irresistible. It is worth the wait and price of admission.
I love the big ensemble numbers that close each act. “On Broadway” is always a fun, big dance number with the whole cast. But Hyman’s solo during “Stand By Me” at curtain call is the perfect end to the evening. “Smokey Joe’s Café” is a great opportunity to revisit classic oldies and sing-a-longs of youth.