Fire up the jukebox for NSMT’s ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’
By Rich Fahey
BEVERLY — Before there were hit jukebox musicals such as “Mama Mia!.” “Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful, The Carol King Musical” or revues devoted to composers such as “Side by Side by Sondheim” there was a 1995 musical revue called “Smokey Joe’s Café.”
It was and is a tribute to songs written in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s by Mike Stoller and the late Jerry Leiber and it became Broadway’s longest-running musical revue after its debut.
In the hands of artists such as Ben. E. King, Elvis Presley and The Drifters, Lieber and Stoller songs such as “Stand by Me,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “On Broadway” became timeless hits. The lists of artists who have recorded their songs could go on for pages but include such artists as Ray Charles, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly.
The café is open for business again, this time at the North Shore Music Theatre through June 19, and the smartly staged production, a vocal and dancing delight, is a high-octane trip down memory lane.
Director and choreographer Stephanie Pope Lofgren is making her NSMT debut in both roles, and was an original cast member of London’s West End production of “Smoky Joe’s Café” and has a Broadway career that has spanned five decades.
Her work here combines expressive individual moves, precision movement when called for, and romantic dance interludes.
There is no strict narrative; the 40 songs are tied together loosely, with tight harmonies following standout individual efforts. The opening number, the beautiful ballad “Neighborhood,” serves as a jumping off point and will circle around again and be reprised at the act of Act II. In between will be songs with classic themes such as love won or lost.
Each member of the ensemble cast – at a recent performance, it included Andres Acosta, Korie Lee Blossey, Christopher Brasfield. Kelsey Denae, Nicole Henry, David Hughey, Nathan Lucrezio, Mariah Lyttle and Bailey Purvis – has time in the sun but they really shine together in production numbers such as “Dance With Me” when Lofgren’s energetic choreography is also in the spotlight, and in a rousing rendition of the Presley classic “Jailhouse Rock.”
Lucrezio’s heartfelt performance of “Spanish Harlem” combined with some stylish flamenco-style footwork from swing performer Katie LaDuca while Brasfeld later stopped the show with a powerful re-telling of the Tom Jones hit “I (Who have Nothing).”
“On Broadway” allows the quintet of Hughey, Brasfeld, Acosta, Lucrezio and Blossey to channel The Drifters to some smart movement from Lofgren while the ladies — Purvis, Lyttle, Danae and Henry — strut their stuff in “I am Woman.”
Blossley, playing the part of Fred. may be a large man, but he moves easily and deftly and his deep bass voice is the type of vocal instrument that would serve as the anchor for such groups of that era as The Coasters, The Drifters or The Platters.
Milton Granger, an award-winning musician with many NSMT credits, leads a seven-piece orchestra that gives full life to Lieber and Stoller’s work.
So turn on the jukebox, get yourself a fistful of coins and sit back and enjoy some of the best rock ‘n roll songs ever written, beautifully performed and choreographed.
The North Shore Music Theatre production of “Smokey Joe’s Café.” Music and lyrics by Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber. Directed and choreographed by Stephanie Pope Lofgren. Scenic design by Kyle Dixon. Costume design by Kelly Baker. Lighting design by Jack Mehler. Sound design by Don Hanna. Music direction by Milton Granger. Additional staging by Kevin P. Hill. At the North Shore Music Theatre through June 19. Nsmt.org