I love musical revues—sometimes even more than musicals. They are devoid of traditional storytelling for vignettes of people’s lives. They allow music and dance to propel them; plots aren’t presented in a linear fashion, with fully fleshed-out characters, situations, and climaxes. Revues draw out snippets of characters we all know in life.
Of course, a revue succeeds most when the music is compelling. American songwriters and record producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller made sure pop, rock, blues, and jazz hits pumped soul into the airwaves in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway,” and “There Goes My Baby” remain only but a few singalongs which took over teenage dances across the nation. In 1994, 39 of their hits became the backbone of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” which opened in LA at the Doolittle Theatre before moving onto Broadway and running 2,036 performances before closing the 2000s.
Locally, True 2 You Productions is bringing “Smokey Joes’ Café” to stage for one more weekend at the Scottish Rite Temple on 17th Street. After bearing success with their Fats Waller tribute in the fall, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” many cast members are returning to showcase their vocal prowess, including the amazing Kim Pachecho and True 2 You producer Joy Gregory, along with choreographer extraordinaire Tracy Byrd. Alone, these three make the ticket price worth it.
Pachecho not only brings strong and fiery sex appeal to songs like “Trouble,” she adds a great punch of humor with wide eyes and exaggerated movement that brings a variety-show flavor to the revue. She also knows how to dial it down with seductive panache in songs like “You’re the Boss.” By far, her chemistry with the extremely handsome and talented Nygel Robinson will melt the audience (at least every female in the audience). Pachecho’s rasp with Robinson’s smooth and silky baritone is goose-bump inducing.
Robinson manages to steal many scenes onstage during this show. During “Spanish Harlem,” though his lustful Latin dance with Shimmy Girl (a bombshell-shaking Cameron Corbin, who filled in for Christy Godwin) is lovely, it’s the only time during his vocal performance where something feels amiss. The song needs less proper enunciation (a la theatre fashion) and more soul—hard consonants should fall off because the power of love and lust behind them radiates brighter.
Joy Gregory is a powerhouse songstress. There is something that punctuates the ether with zing everytime she steps onto a stage. Her essence is so positive and her vocal reach simply astounding; she hits all scales and octaves as steadily and easily as if it’s her normal breath. “Fools Fall in Love” manages a sweet touch thanks to her audience interaction, while “Saved” adds hilarious evocation to the show. The only song I didn’t care for was “Kansas City”—a shame since it’s also one of the most well-known. It just falls flat in its current incarnation.
Beth Swindell and Ieisha Jones round out the female counterparts. Jones is an effortless singer, who at first may be misappropriated as the weak part of the cast; she is not. Her “Fallin’” coos with warmth and ease. Swindell’s “Neighborhood” reprise showcases a softer, fuller voice without strain, unlike her “shining moment” in “Pearl’s a Singer.” Though the potential is there, the song sounds a bit butchered instead of authoritatively robust. Edges need to be smoothed out to pack its might. Yet, when paired with Byrd, Swindell’s allure during “Love Me/Don’t” makes up for it.
In all honesty, the director, Byrd, and his men really put the spotlight on this show. They bring an effervescence to the music and real verve thanks to syncopated dance numbers like the humorous and foot-tapping “Poison Ivy,” “Keep On Rollin’,” and “Ruby Baby.” Domonick Gibbs woos with dapper suave in “Loving You,” while Sam Robinson finds his pacing in “Charlie Brown” but finally gets his praise in “I (Who Have Nothing).” Khawon Porter, however, steals every scene he’s in—not only because of his fine vocals but with his shenanigans. Songs like “DW Washburn” and “Searchin’” make Porter a pure joy to watch, from his goofy drunkeness to his fierce bombast.
A simple set design by Terry Collins and lighting by Dallas LaFon emanates city life, as if we’re in some NY burrough. Sound design by Greg Malcolm stays on cue for the most part; however, Friday’s performance did suffer mic failure completely in “Trouble,” as well as a few fuzzy feedbacks which overshadowed the performers. Costuming by Gregory showcases quite a few stunners—especially with the ladies’ gowns and the provocative bustiers.
But let’s be fair, here: Without the band, a musical revue just wouldn’t exist. Rob Murphrey, Chris Marcellus, Jared Cline, Pedro Esparza, and Duke Ladd nail every song. They get their due in “Baby That’s Rock & Roll/Yakety Yak,” as each gives a snippet solo. Pay close attention to the sounds of “I’m a Woman,” with its classic blues riffs, and the stunning horns in “Keep on Rollin’.” In fact, listen to the music as closely as watching the performers; it moves.
Exempt of dialogue, “Smokey Joe’s Café” doesn’t perfectly string together all these songs into a coherent plot. But it doesn’t need to; it provides a loose shell of life’s varied situations: neighborhood friendships, love, growing up, dealing with success, and finding your voice in life. However, with this cast, it seems such voices get more powerful with every measure played and every memory of life that passes by. Don’t miss a chance for sheer entertainment in another hit from True 2 You Productions.
Smokey Joe’s Café
Scottish Rite Temple
1415 S. 17th Street
Thurs.- Fri., June 20th-22nd, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.