‘Smokey Joe’ at New Theatre rocks the house

06/27/2014 11:53 AM

06/27/2014 11:53 AM

Avoiding hyperbole is a good rule for critics, but after reflecting on the upscale production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at the New Theatre Restaurant, I can in good conscience say it might be the best revue I’ve ever seen.

Revues can be tricky. Success is determined by the selection of songs, the order in which they’re performed, the arrangements and, of course, the singers.

The New Theatre production never misses a step. This is a joyous celebration of songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, one of the most prolific songwriting teams in the history of pop music and whose Top 40 tunes remain in the public mind 50 or 60 years after they were first heard.

Director/choreographer Richard J. Hinds has assembled a superior cast and manages to do something remarkable: A show without dialogue or spoken commentary that finds a glimmer of transcendent meaning. This is more than a collection of pop tunes. The show is ultimately about the power of music.

Think about it: A three-minute song with hummable melodies, toe-tapping rhythms and simple but eloquent lyrics can transport us, transform us and access spiritual impulses we didn’t necessarily know we had. Leiber and Stoller, sometimes working with other songwriters, did it again and again.

These are the guys who wrote “Kansas City,” “Hound Dog,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway” and dozens more. Leiber and Stoller’s knack for appropriating 12-bar blues and creating memorable pop tunes speaks for itself, but their work is surprisingly diverse. This show evokes a range of moods with melodies that can be slaphappy, somber or uplifting.

Kansas City audiences have seen Hinds’ work before. He’s directed other productions at the New Theatre and he choreographed Kansas City Rep’s memorable production of “Cabaret.” Here he creates a show that flows smoothly from one indelible performance to the next.

But Hinds didn’t do it alone. The program credits Andrew Turteltaub as associate director and choreographer and the design team — Jason Coale (sets), Mary Traylor (costumes), Randy B. Winder (lights), Roger Stoddard (sound) and Jeff Cady (projections) — does excellent work. This show gleams with craftsmanship on every level.

And then, of course, you have the performers. These out-of-towners, some of whom have Broadway experience, are so committed to the material that it’s virtually impossible to say who rises to the top. There is not a weak voice in the bunch.

The five men (Alexander Aguilar, LaVance Colley, Antwayn Hopper and James T. Lane) and four women (Melody Betts, Alexandra Palkovic, Alexis J. Rogers and Keely Vasquez) exhibit slick dance prowess and extraordinary vocal abilities.

Among the stand-out numbers are Rogers’ coquettish reading of “Don Juan,” Rogers and Hopper performing “You’re the Boss” as a comic duet, Aguilar delivering an incendiary version of “Jail House Rock” and Vasquez’s delicate performance of the plaintive “Pearl’s a Singer.”

The biggest voice belongs to Melody Betts, a belter capable of great subtlety, who elicits repeated applause with the gospel-flavored “Saved,” the moody “Fools Fall in Love” and the raucous “Hound Dog.”

Palkovic shows off impressive dance moves in “Shimmy.” Colley demonstrates his comic acting ability in the memorable “D.W. Washburn” and the amusing “Shoppin’ for Clothes,” but then gives us a riveting dramatic rendition of “I Who Have Nothing.”

Love’s memorable “Lovin’ You” is another highlight and the charismatic Lane handles the closer, the evocative “Stand By Me.”

“Kansas City” appears midway through the first act and gets the reaction you’d expect. The three-voice arrangement performed by Aguilar, Vasquez and Betts is, inevitably, a show-stopper.

These singers are backed by a crack seven-member band led by music director by Mark Farrell at the keyboards. The choreography for the most part is inventive and athletic, and these actors execute the moves with grace and power.

What can I say? This is great stuff.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

Onstage

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” runs through Aug. 24 at the New Theatre, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park. Call 913-649-7469 or go to www.newtheatre.com.

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