Baby, That Is Rock & Roll…WDL Shimmies with SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE

by John Muller

It is said that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were the first to surround black music with elaborate production. What better place to put their music, then, than in a Broadway Musical! The only major difference between SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ and any other Broadway Musical is that SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ really doesn’t have a storyline. Director Dominic Santos puts it perfectly when in his director’s note he states, “I had originally planned on adding a story line…[but]…I left it alone and decided to let the music, blocking, and choreography speak for themselves. Leiber[‘s] and Stoller’s songs aren’t just songs; they’re plays. This show consists of 40 one act plays.” Santos could not have picked a better path. With songs spanning Leiber’s and Stoller’s entire career, like “Kansas City”, “On Broadway”, “Yakety Yak”, “Charlie Brown”, “Hound Dog”, “Love Potion #9”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “Stand By Me”, the audience for the Wilmington Drama League’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ was in for a rockin’ good time.

The cast consists of strong singers and performers. Each of these performers brings the essence and rhythm of these iconic songs to the stage with grace and finesse. In particular, Tommy Fisher-Klein and Jacob Bauer Zebley are total stand outs on hits, like “Searchin’”, “D.W. Washburn”, “Ruby Baby”, and “Jailhouse Rock”. Tonya TS Baynes’ soulful vocals and sassy attitude steal the show on hits such as “Don Juan” and “Some Cats Know”.

Choreography for SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ is nothing short of amazing! Every step is perfectly timed out and aligned to the music. The way all of the performers work together brings this show to life, and the choreography of Dominic Santos, clearly executed by his cast, is some of the best footwork I have seen in a community theater.

The set is simple and quaint. The lighting is a little choppy, but the actors make up for it in their soulful renditions. The sound seems to plague this small community theater, as this is the second musical I have seen where feedback from the mics detracts from the performers on stage. However, even with these small glitches (and they really were small – the cast does a great job of holding the audience’s attention), the show is a rousing success bringing the audience to its feet during the bows.

On a final note, the orchestra certainly needs a nod on this one. Not only does the orchestra play all the music brilliantly, but also, the orchestra becomes a part of the show in Act II, with the Music Director, Anthony Vitalo, taking lead vocal duties on “Stay A While”, while the cast and crew set the scene of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ complete with the iconic SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ neon sign.

The Wilmington Drama League’s production of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ runs through February 1st.

The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
Directed by Dominic Santos
Musically Directed by Anthony Vitalo
January 23 – February 1, 2015
Wilmington Drama League
10 W Lea Blvd.
Wilmington, DE 19802

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