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Depot Theatre, Westport NY
Depot Theatre, Westport NY

Theatre Review: "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at the Depot Theatre

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Smokey Joe's Cafe is running at the Depot Theatre in Westport NY through September 6. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has our review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

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If you like watching good singers who are also terrific dancers perform some great pop hits, get over, up or down to the Depot Theatre and see SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE.  With no plot or dialogue, the songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller are staged so that each one is a mini-vignette.

Who on earth are Lieber and Stoller you ask?  Well, they wrote a bunch of the pop hits of the 50s and 60s.  Remember "Charlie Brown," "Yakkety Yak," "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog" and "Love Potion Number 9"?  This talented ensemble cast of five men and four women give high-energy non-stop performances of almost 40 of their songs.

The actors are backed by a first-rate five-piece combo led by Musical Director and pianist Michael Murray.  He's also done a terrific job with the ensemble vocals.  In spite of some sound glitches opening night, he maintains a good balance between the band and the singers, not easy to do with rock n' roll.  By the way, sax player Matthew Polashek gets the award for the best bio.

Technical Director Eric Hersh and Director Christopher Patterson have designed a brightly colored juke-box-like set.  The band is upstage, visible through an archway that's sometimes covered with panels of painted scrim. Bright coral rolling sets of steps and tables and chairs moved by the cast provide flexibility and leave plenty of room for the choreography.

Gary Burlew's lighting is excellent.  I liked his judicious use of a mirror ball and the lights around the arch.  As for Jean Brookman's costumes, they're simply splendid.  She and her assistant Alyssa Couturier, (yep, that's her name), have not only caught the period, they've added clever small touches such as coordinating the men's ties, cummerbunds and lapels with the ladies' dresses in Act II.  The many changes are pretty nippy, but go without a hitch.

This is truly an ensemble cast who each also has a chance to shine as a soloist.  I like the opening sequence, especially "Young Blood" and a personal favorite, "Searchin'," is great fun.  "Rose of Spanish Harlem" provides a tender moment.  Not only well-sung, the pas de deux is beautifully danced and includes some lovely lifts.  A costume malfunction didn't slow down the lively "On Broadway" for a second, while "Jailhouse Rock" just about takes the roof off.

Director/Choreographer Christopher Patterson has done a fine job with the staging.  The choreography is lively and varied.  I noticed a bit of Alvin Ailey influence in "I'm Saved" and some Twyla Tharp hands throughout.  That's certainly NOT a bad thing.  The choreography for "I'm Evil" and "Dance with Me" is especially fine and the finale version of "Stand By Me" is terrific.

Let me reassure you - this production is not over-amplified, like some rock pieces.  I thought the sound level was just about right.

This is an excellent production of a musical theatre piece that's very entertaining and lots of fun.  I must admit I'm prejudiced, since the songs include lots of the hits of my mis-spent youth.  In any case, I had a great time.

On a scale of one to five the Depot Theatre production of SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE gets four and seven-eighths box cars.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.

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