Article by Cori Wilbur
February 6, 2019
My mom’s favorite story to tell is of the time she went on a cruise and met the Coasters. It’s true, I found a signed picture for proof.
Many of the Coasters’ hits, along with pretty much any song out of a 1950s diner jukebox, I learned recently, were written by a popular duo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In the mid-nineties, came about Smokey Joe’s Café, a musical revue highlighting the pair’s songwriting achievements. Anywhere I can hear Elvis Presley or the Drifters, I’m in.
Old songs can always be new. Or at least interpreted in a new way. And that is what Tony Houck had in mind when he took on this revue as New Village Arts’ latest production. Joe’s isn’t about nostalgia so much as it is a reminder as to why this music is so timeless.
With a cast of nine uniquely skilled individuals and a soundtrack of 39 recognizable pop standards, the newest run of Smokey Joe’s Café promises (and mostly delivers) a dynamo show.
Houck, along with choreographer, Michael Mizerany, are clever in how they decide to put a modern twist to these old-fashioned hits. They incorporate the latest technologies (“Searchin’” has the men swiping through a dating app trying to find her); address current domestic affairs (“D.W. Washburn” sees the cast sporting various political messages); and poke fun at pop culture phenomena (yes, someone breaks out the floss).
One distinguishable characteristic of the Coasters’ music is Dub Jones’ bass heard in “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” and “Little Egypt.” Philip David Black’s deep vocals bring the perfect taste of nostalgia without making this production something only baby boomers can enjoy.
It is clear this revue takes a great deal of endurance to pull off. Kyle Leatherbury brings the strongest vocals and Trevor Rex, the strongest dance capabilities. However, Kevin “Blax” Burroughs and Isaac Kalimo hold their own musically and physically. “There Goes My Baby” and “Love Potion #9” put a 2019 gender fluid twist to the machismo of the typical male ensemble.
In turn, “I’m a Woman” superbly showcases each female player’s vocal prowess. Natasha Baenisch, Melissa Fernandes and Eboni Muse are among the strongest vocalists of the entire cast. But it is the solo achievement “Trouble” that sets the mood for the rest of the night: Jasmine January is one femme fatale you do not want to cross. For me, she stole the show with her take on LaVern Baker’s “Don Juan,” a riotous lamentation of the volatility to a lavish lifestyle.
If I’m being honest, this revue does need a larger space than New Village Arts permits. A few near collisions did occur and there were a few moments the players did not go as far as they could. However, within the small area, the performers gave an effort well-deserving of the standing ovation they received.
When you listen to the oldies, you have an entire catalog of history at your expenditure. Music is your oyster. This show did not totally wow me, but the paramountcy of the music overpowers any shortcomings in the production and makes Smokey Joe’s Café definitely worth experiencing.
Now, through March 17, purchase your tickets for this “Neighborhood” performance of Smokey Joe’s Cafe by visiting http://newvillagearts.org/api_showinfo_new.php?id=801