News Column

Review - Classic songs well-delivered in 'Smokey Joe's'

June 19, 2014

By John Staton, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.



June 19--Hop aboard the nostalgia train, everyone. "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is one fun ride.

The revue of rock 'n' roll songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- some of them famous, others less so -- is being staged with an infectious exuberance by True To You Productions at the Scottish Rite Theater, where much of the audience during Sunday's matinee watched the show with big ol' smiles plastered across their faces.

In one sense, this is community theater at its finest. "Smokey Joe's" is the first show that True to You has done without partnering with another theater company, and producer Joe Ducree Gregory and director Tracy Byrd fill enough other duties behind the scenes -- and on stage -- to give off that "let's put on a show!" vibe of yore.

But make no mistake. There's a level of talent here that any company in town would be thrilled to have, and Gregory and Byrd both possess the skills to make that talent shine. Lulls exist to be sure, but even as it falls short during a couple of low-energy ballads the show reaches such giddy heights of entertainment that it makes those moments easy to forgive. Despite a couple of rough edges, this is a fabulous production.

"Smokey Joe's" has a loose narrative flow that comes from how the songs are arranged. Show opener "Neighborhood," which contains some of the flawless, spine-tingling harmonies that fill this revue, presents the 10 performers as having grown up together, with the subsequent songs presumably plucked from their individual journeys.

Directing, choreographing and acting in a musical is a huge amount of work for one person, but given Byrd's history with "Smokey Joe's" -- he's performed it multiple times -- he makes that burden appear light. He leads his cast through some energetic, effective choreography, while providing compelling lead vocals on such tunes as "Young Blood" and "Stand By Me."

There are lots of opportunity for cheese in this show, but Byrd sidesteps almost all of them save for the corny black-and-white-striped costumes of "Jailhouse Rock." Even then, he salvages the number with some jumpy choreography.

Producer Gregory, who also costumes the show and music directs a rock-solid band with the assistance of Chris Marcellus, delivers two versions of "Fools Fall in Love," one endearingly goofy (and featuring some dramatic lighting by Dallas LaFon), the other poignant. She's also a wonderful comic actress, as when she swoops in to provide humor, and even chills, on "Dance with Me," which Nygel Robinson nails with doo-wop-style phrasing.

Robinson comes off like a star in the making. He's got the requisite good looks, but he also has a presence and a suave seriousness that doesn't feel out of place on the more comic numbers. Plus, his fabulously rich, transportive voice fits perfectly on a ballad like "Spanish Harlem," which also features some fine dancing by Christy Godwin. On "You're the Boss," a duet he shares with Kim Pacheco (both have won Wilmington Theater Awards winners for best actor and actress, respectively, in a musical), it's like two heavyweights duking it out.

Pacheco also displays power, toughness and sexiness on "Don Juan," while Iesha Jones' voice is beautiful on "Fallin'" despite some sound distortion that plagued the early part of the show but was later rectified.

"Searchin'" provides a stage for the considerable comic abilities of Khawon Porter, who comes close to stealing the show on "D.W. Washburn" with his uncanny portrayal of a happy derelict before the number bleeds into the gospel fabulousness of "Saved."

Elsewhere, Sam Robinson's voice doesn't seem to match "Stay a While" but he's funny on "Charlie Brown," and having him sing "I (Who Have Nothing)" is a bold choice, with the actor's considerable girth lending an unspoken poignance to the song, which is about being in love with someone who's in love with another.

Domonick Gibbs shows off some great moves during "On Broadway" and croons impressively on "Loving You," while Beth Swindell struggles some on "Pearl's a Singer" but still delivers the goods with the number about a fading nightclub diva.

In general the more upbeat numbers work better than the ballads, as when the men rock the bluesy, railroad-themed "Keep on Rollin'," or when the women provide a compelling answer to Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters on "I'm a Woman."

Even the band gets into the act, soloing impressively on "Baby, That's Rock & Roll," a number the cast reprises for curtain call.

There are some distractions, like when set pieces are moved and bang into mics hanging overhead, setting them a-swingin', but they pale in the face of the overwhelmingly positive energy of this show. Simply put, "Smokey Joe's" is smokin' hot.

John Staton: 343-2343

Twitter: @Statonator

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(c)2014 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com

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Source: Star-News (Wilmington, NC)


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