THEATER: “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” @ Capital Repertory Theatre

Actors Benjamin Mapp and Christopher Brasfield make their Capital Repertory Theatre debuts in the toe-tapping

Actors Benjamin Mapp and Christopher Brasfield make their Capital Repertory Theatre debuts in the toe-tapping “Smokey Joe’s Café” at Capital Repertory Theatre through August 10

Review by Greg Haymes

The annual summertime offering at downtown Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre is all about a feel-good, light-hearted, music-laden revue, and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller” fits the bill perfectly.

For theater-goers of a certain age, it’s a sweet, sentimental stroll through the soundtrack of their youth. For younger viewers, it’s a rompin’ musical history lesson about the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll when black was black, and white was white, and rarely if ever did the twain meet until the teenage songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller came along.

There’s no over-riding narrative arc to get in the way. There’s no story-line at all – unless you consider the lyrics of the 39 songs to be individual single-scene plays. Unlike other jukebox musicals based on songs from roughly the same era – “Leader of the Pack” or the current “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” for instance – it’s not a biographical portrait of struggling songwriters who finally hit it big. It’s not even really about Leiber and Stoller, the two songwriters who helped lay the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll.

In fact, there’s no dialogue at all. It’s all about the music.

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And there’s plenty of music – the nine-member cast tackles more than three dozen songs in two hours. There are silly songs (“Poison Ivy,” sung by Correy West), despondent songs (“I Who Have Nothing” in a towering if overwrought performance by Christopher Brasfield), determined songs (“On Broadway,” sung by the male quartet), funny songs (“Little Egypt,” sung by the booming Jason Veasey), yearning songs (“Dance With Me”)…

While Leiber & Stoller’s vast catalog of big hits is well represented – alas, however, “Is That All There Is?” isn’t included, nor, ironically enough, is the show’s title track (although it’s listed in the program) – it’s often their lesser known tunes that shine brightest on stage, especially Fall’s knee-bucklingly sexy rendition of “Some Cats Know” and her sassy gold-digger take on “Don Juan,” sung with a perfectly hot-but-haughty Rihanna-like air about her.

Directed and choreographed by Richard J. Hinds, the show seems at times over-stocked with dance moves, as though his thought was that perhaps the songs couldn’t stand on their own without some fancy footwork. Things calm down some terpsichore-wise in the second act, when a number of the performers step into spotlight for stand-and-deliver solo showcases.

With keyboardist Benet Braun at the helm, the five-piece band delivers the goods and they even get some well-deserved onstage face-time during the second act. And costume designer Leslie Malitz earns kudos for the countless costume changes required throughout the show.

In the end, though, the night belonged to Jannie Jones once again. I say “once again” because Jones proved to be a wail of a singer in Cap Rep’s 2011 production of “Crowns,” and she took it up a notch or two in 2012′s “Black Pearl Sings.” In “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” however, she is positively explosive on both (totally different) renditions of “Fools Fall in Love” and a howlingly grand performance of “Hound Dog.”

When she opens her mouth, the whole stage lights up. And even when the stage is crammed full of pell-mell razzle-dazzle – as during the gospel rave-up Act One closer, “Saved” – you can’t take your eyes off of her.

Performances of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” continue at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany through Sunday, Aug. 10. Tickets range from $20-$60; $16 students.

SECOND OPINIONS
Steve Barnes’ review at The Times Union
Will Gallagher’s review at Discover Albany
Rich Dimaggio’s review at Point a Place
Excerpt from Paul Lamar’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Anchoring the show is the quartet work of Christopher Brasfield, Benjamin Mapp, Jason Veasey and Correy West, young men in the mold of The Coasters or The Drifters, African-American doo-wop ensembles that showcased Leiber & Stoller songs. For example, the sequence of ‘Keep on Rollin’’” and ‘Searchin’’” is remarkable for the close harmonies and spot-on moves. Elsewhere they’re joined by Justin Scott Brown, who makes them an even higher-octane quintet. Their solo work is also stellar. Brasfield finds the soul-baring agony of ‘I (Who Have Nothing),’ and West scores with ‘Loving You.’ The women — Laura D’Andre, Lulu Fall, Gizel Jimenez, and Jannie Jones — brought down Tuesday’s packed house with ‘I’m a Woman,’ and individually each delivers songs just right for her voice. I particularly like D’Andre’s treatment of ‘I Keep Forgettin’’” and Jones’s front-and-center, ironic, gospel-and-blues infused rendition of ‘Fools Fall in Love.’”

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