Smokey Joe's Cafe
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 13, 2002
Smokey Joe's Cafe: Flame-KissedZachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, through Jan. 5
Running Time: 1 hr, 50 min
Rumor has it that rock & roll hits from the 1950s and 1960s were once pretty hot little numbers, songs that could strike sparks in one's heart and even body parts due south. Of course, that was before decades of being recycled relentlessly on oldies radio and in television ads drained these songs of any combustion they once may have had, leaving them little more than three-minute puffs of nostalgic haze.
Yet the latest pop revue at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center proves that where there's smoke, there can still be fire. Dave Steakley's version of Smokey Joe's Cafe re-ignites dozens of hits from the astounding musical catalog of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, setting ablaze even such overexposed jukebox standards as "Hound Dog" and "Stand By Me," "Kansas City" and "Love Potion #9." The director manages this trick by rekindling the flames of desire that burn in so many of the team's songs (indeed, in so many rock & roll hits, period): that old romantic yearning heard in the pop music of earlier generations but jacked up with a beat and attitude that openly acknowledge sexual attraction.
That's what connected so powerfully with all those teenagers in love, and Steakley slyly steers us in that direction with a shift of setting from the generic nightclub that gives the show its title to one of Hugh Hefner's Playboy clubs of the early Sixties. It's an explicit nod to the libido, but since by today's standards, the explicitness of that era's Playboy is tame, it lets Steakley explore the desire in Leiber & Stoller's songs through New Frontier-era sexuality (and the style it was seductively packaged in) without creating a show that is unfriendly to families.
Hef's palace of pleasure is realized by designer Michael Raiford with his usual savoir-faire in hunky stone walls and Space Age accents (globe lights, chrome rails). Bathed in the stylish beams of Jason Amato's lighting, which range from sultry orange sunlight to romantic sapphire moon glow, this is no low-rent strip joint for ogling naked babes; it's a classy club for the smart set to savor a martini served by one of the signature bunnies (Kasey Eggleston and Heather Huggins, who also shimmy up a storm, and do so in outfits more modest than the average Baywatch bikini). When the cast parades around in period fashions from silk smoking jackets to satin gowns with fur stoles (all cunningly coordinated by costumer Susan Branch), and you hear a number like "Spanish Harlem" played with grace by Allen Robertson and his crisp combo and crooned smoothly by Quincy Kuykendall, an air of sophistication prevails.
The performers aren't all suavity, however. The four males -- who work primarily as a team performing numbers made famous by the Coasters, the Drifters, and the Clovers -- deliver numbers such as "Young Blood" and "Searchin'" with the freshness, vitality, and sometimes goofy appeal of a pack of hormone-driven adolescent guys, gaping in wonder at each female form they see and moaning in misery when she passes them by. Even when one of them takes a solo turn -- as when Drew Starlin gets his Elvis mojo workin' on "Jailhouse Rock," or Mark Anthony Hall succumbs to the charms of "Little Egypt," or Ty London warns of the dangers of "Poison Ivy" -- the twitchy pelvis and moon-faced stare signal that these are playboys with the accent on "boys."
The females here are the ones in control. When Jennifer Young makes her entrance, she is the textbook definition of a blond bombshell, exploding onto the stage in a dress that hugs her every curve. Recalling the young Anne Francis, down to the beauty mark on her cheek, Young is lithe and alluring and lets us know she knows it. Susanne Abbott is equally hot, sheathed in a fiery red cat suit, but the confidence she projects is totally cool, and with her self-possession are pipes that blow a tune like "Pearl's a Singer" to the moon. Janis Stinson is as solid as a rock, flirting, teasing, but never making a move until she's ready; she can do anything from trip the light fantastic to save your soul, with a voice that never fails to lift you up. When these three belt out "Kansas City" and size up their lovers in "Don Juan," and especially when they spell out "w-o-m-a-n" in the anthemic "I'm a Woman," it's clear that they are play toys for no man.
There is a touch of nostalgia in this Smokey Joe's Cafe, but the show comes by it honestly, courtesy of the Leiber & Stoller song "Neighborhood," in which the singer turns to an old scrapbook for another look back at a special time, a special place. It is the amazing Stinson who performs the number, and her voice, itself smoky with time and care, takes the song beyond sap into a realm of loss and longing. There is desire here, too: desire to hold on to a treasure of one's past. With wit, imagination, and a wealth of theatrical fire, Dave Steakley and his company allow us to recognize the treasures we have in these hits of Rock & Roll Past and to hold onto them a little longer.