Eagle Theatre’s Hot and Sassy SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE

by Jack Shaw
Jenna Bitow, AJ Mendini, Rachel Pinkstone-Marx. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

Jenna Bitow, AJ Mendini, Rachel Pinkstone-Marx. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

“Yakety Yak”, “Poison Ivy”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Kansas City”, “Charlie Brown”, “Loving You”, “Trouble” and “Searchin'” are some of the some of the songs danced and sung to perfection by the ensemble. You’ve heard some of these songs and wondered where in the heck did they come from and some you recognize as Elvis Presley’s. They were, but not at first. That’s for later. The dancing grabs you as the songs take you back (if you’re old enough) or take you to another world if you’re not. I admit to remembering it was my parent’s music, but I loved the oldies. This was better than going back in time.

So riveting is The Eagle Theatre’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ that no one wants to miss a moment of the heart pounding, hair-raising notes and rhythms, the playful and stylistic dancing so unique today, and reminiscent of the age of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It was a little before Elvis, and what an age it was. Leiber and Stoller were the first white guys to venture into writing rhythm and blues, then rock, music that up until then had been solely in the hands of African-American musicians.

In fact, a few of Elvis’ mega-hits are sung here, most likely the way the writers wanted them, too. For example, did you know “Hound Dog” was written for a woman? In this case, the always amazing Jenna Bitow. She gives the song a new layer of meaning and sass. When she starts singing it you can feel the audience start to get up on their feet. There are several moments like that. We were all in the mood. Kate Tharp Shafer did a superb job with costumes as she always does; however this must have been a major project with so many matching pants, dresses, and different color shirts to help us re-live the era. She pulls it off beautifully. She’s not the only one. Every performer on that stage gives us a chance to see his or her specialty, while creating different characters for each song. A golden statuette to the cast if it were mine to give. I’d love to name you all and sing all your praises, but I’m bound to leave out something dear to you. This show is one that will remain in my memory for a long time because of the great work you did here.

For everyone else, here’s the magnificent cast: Rajeer Alford, Franklin Anthony, Marissa Barnathan, Jenna Bitow, Michael Hogan, Jessica Johnson, A. J. Mendini, Rachel Pinkstone-Marx and Will Scantling. I’m pretty sure I saw your best moments and I hope others do. I look forward to seeing you in your next projects.

It’s intermission. Ed Corsi, the director, stands modestly, but proudly, off to the side. He has an electrifying show and he knows it. So does the audience as they head back after taking a short break to their seats for some more mind-blowing belting, dancing and sashaying. Jason Neri, the musical director, who also plays piano with the band, knows that he’s had a hand in the songs and music we loved so much.

I saw SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ at The Eagle Theatre Saturday evening with my family, wishing we had seen it opening night instead of the day after. There is such energy, such music, such singing, such moving, such color, such lighting, such costumes, and such a wonderful set. Ed Corsi has to be in theatre heaven because he headed a masterpiece of musical theatre (revue actually, but why mince words). I was mesmerized by Franklin Anthony’s amazing choreography that gelled so perfectly with the awesome ensemble cast. There were synchronized movements that most theatre goers have never seen before in person. Justin Walsh’s set design gave a great place for Jason Neri’s band (also excellent), provided entrances and exits on different levels. It had a clean look like that of the performers. I liked the look of it from the minute I stepped inside the theatre.

The Company of SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

The Company of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

I knew I was in the presence of professionals. The confident, fast-paced movement and acting/singing the songs so perfectly can only come from actors who know themselves and the show so well they could do it alone. In some cases, there is no understudy and this was one of them. One of the actors, Mike Hogan, slipped a disc earlier and, if you’ve ever slipped a disc, you know the indescribable pain. A true professional for whom, “the show must go on,” Mike with the help of some pain pills managed to stay the course. With the type of numbers he had to do, I don’t know how he stood the pain and managed to keep a smile on his face.

The Eagle Theatre’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE earned a spontaneous standing ovation with the last song “Stand By Me”. The energy in the theatre was so high I expected nothing less. It was almost as if the theatre was poised to jump to its feet at anytime during the entire show. This is not a show to miss or you’ll regret it if you love theatre or music or dance. Don’t put it off until later because this show is bound to sell out, when word of mouth gets out.

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Directed by Ed Corsi
Musical Direction by Jason Neri
Choreography by Franklin Anthony
August 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24 | 8:00PM
August 11; 18 | 3:00PM
The Eagle Theatre
208 Vine Street
Hammonton, NJ 08037
(609) 704-5012

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