Regional Reviews: San Diego
Smokey Joe's Cafe
Also see David's review of Tiny Beautiful Things
Smokey Joe's Cafe is a relatively plotless (and scriptless) musical, but Tony Houck uses unique creative choices at the New Village Arts Theatre to create his own version set in the present day. He incorporates the classic Leiber and Stoller songs to present vignettes involving cell phones, dating, and love stories, with the performers playing stage versions of themselves. Act two is largely set in a bar, and focuses on various relationships among the patrons.
Houck honors the original 1995 Broadway production, and still finds ways to appeal to a modern-day audience. He incorporates references to internet culture and dating apps without using them as a crutch. Christopher Scott Murillo's set, Chris Renda's lighting, and Samantha Vesco's costumes represent a version of "urban America," and their work provides a cool atmosphere in the act two bar. During an early performance, some lyrics were difficult to understand, but that issue has likely been fixed. Despite the minor hiccup, Houck and choreographer Michael Mizerany are responsible for a very entertaining presentation of Leiber and Stoller's classic melodies.
Music director/conductor/keyboardist Houck, co-conductor/keyboardist Benjamin Goniea (who gets to sing in the welcoming "Stay a While"), guitarist Andrew Snyder, and the other musicians perform songs such as "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown," which are as catchy as ever. They also bring a bittersweet quality to "Neighborhood" and "I (Who Have Nothing)." Mizerany has choreographed the interpretation with great versatility, particularly when Trevor Rex is on stage. There is a sense of sadness in his movements during a love triangle sequence involving Rex in "Love Me"/"Don't," and adds a passionate tone in a dance duet with Rex and Natasha Baenisch to "Spanish Harlem." Throughout the evening, Houck and Mizerany are able to showcase the singing and dancing skills of the ensemble.
In act one, it appears that certain performers get more attention than others. Kevin "Blax" Burroughs, Melissa Fernandes, Eboni Muse, and Jasmine January get multiple chances to impress with their expressive vocals and dancing. As the night goes on, however, everyone in the company gets an opportunity to shine, including Rex, Baenisch, Phillip David Black, Isaac Kalimo, and Kyle Leatherbury. Leatherbury and Black are very funny in an exaggeratedly dramatic rendition of "There Goes My Baby," and Kalimo is both sorrowful and hopeful in his version of "Loving You." Romance, friendship, and a sense of community resonate in Houck's interpretation of the revue.
The characters, despite changes in their relationships, have a sense of camaraderie, and that message rings true in the finale, "Stand by Me." During the upbeat conclusion, the ensemble harmonizes in an ode to the different bonds between people. If the night is about relationships and desire, the ending suggests that basic human connection is just as important for us be happy, and Houck admirably showcases the talents of the cast in demonstrating this. His vision results in a cheerful and moving salute to Leiber and Stoller's legacy.
Smokey Joe's Cafe, through March 17, 2019, at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays and tickets, which start at $50.00, can be purchased online at www.newvillagearts.org or by phone at 760-433-3245.