Smokey Joe's Cafe on National Tour
Note: The following review is from Smokey Joe's West End run at the Prince of Wales Theatre, prior to its national tour.
Smokey Joe's Cafe boasts a winning formula for an evening of pure entertainment - great music, great choreography and a dynamic cast. What it doesn't have is anything resembling a plot (so if that's a criteria for keeping your interest, steer clear). It does have a story, and it's the story of music or, more precisely, the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Chock full of more than 40 musical numbers, it is this that makes the two hours of the production fly by.
Without a doubt, there is plenty of worthy material to draw on for this compilation piece. During Lieber and Stoller's 45-year partnership, they have produced a long list of well-known hits including “Hound Dog” and “Stand By Me” (many of which you ll recognise in the show). Considered pioneers in the history of modern American music, the duo inject their songs with their own passion for boogie woogie and the blues.
The songs in Smokey Joe's Cafe, toe-tapping on their own, are further enlivened by the show's excellent, nine-strong cast, all of whom are introduced in the opening song, “Neighbourhood”. It's an opening that plucks at the nostalgia strings with its references to the past and old acquaintances. And it sets the pace for an emotionally varied musical tour. Director Jerry Zaks doesn't let you wallow in your nostalgia for long. Not with humorous renditions of songs like “Keep On Rolling” which leaves you trying to stifle your giggling. Performer Neal Wright dominates this piece with his hilarious antics - his facial expressions alone capture the essence of the song.
In “Teach Me How to Shimmy”, Joanne Farrell s seductive “shimmying” (those must be the fastest hips in the West End) captivates the audience, particularly the male representatives. In fact, Farrell tantalises throughout the show with her energetic dancing and girlish presence.
Co-star Chrissie Hammond (one of the founding member's of the rock group Air Supply) stands out for altogether different reasons in the number “Pearl's a Singer”. Her performance needed no dance routine or ornate costumes - her outstanding voice was enough on its own and incredibly rousing.
Although I was initially a bit sceptical (I admit it, I m - ordinarily - one who likes her plot conventions), Smokey Joe's Cafe has converted me not only to the music of Lieber and Stoller but also to the compilation musical. The “story of music” is an engrossing one and Smokey Joe's Cafe a thoroughly enjoyable night out.