Its songs may seem old – because they are – but the longest-running Broadway musical revue ever is blessed with the endurance and exuberance of youth. The 39-tune celebration of composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is returning to New York in July for a much-anticipated engagement at Off Broadway’s Stage 42. That’s 23 years after it opened on the Great White Way and ran for more than 2,000 performances. But Smokey Joe’s Café is open for business locally right now, at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista where it’s directed and choreographed by Shirley Johnston, who is also a member of the nine-person cast.
Officially titled Smokey Joe’s Café – The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, this two-act show is a jukebox musical in the purest sense. It’s 100 percent sung through, with no spoken book, and its tunes are not strictly connected in any discernible thematic fashion. In the first act, for example, the comedic “Poison Ivy” is sandwiched between the torchy “Fools Fall in Love” and the vampy “Don Juan,” while in Act 2, “Jailhouse Rock” (complete with the ensemble in prison stripes) bisects the jazz-inflected “Some Cats Know” and the swooning “Spanish Harlem.” But continuity is less important than the Leiber-Stoller songs themselves, which over the course of two hours also include classics like “Kansas City,” “There Goes My Baby,” “On Broadway,” “Hound Dog,” “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion #9” and the unifying finale “Stand By Me.”
OnStage Playhouse’s cast is mostly young, but talented and sincere in their renderings, particularly Dominique Dates, Raymond Stradford III and the versatile, aforementioned Johnston. Her choreography is industrious and contributes added dimension to what otherwise would be an oldies concert. Consequently, the group numbers with parts of or the entire cast in dance mode are Smokey Joe’s Café’s high points. The solo vocalizations in general are overwrought.
A six-member band, which includes 15-year-old Alvin Paige on saxophone, cranks out the tunes with gusto.
While the narrow confines of the Onstage theater makes entrances and exits from the wings awkward, the spry and multi-costumed (by Pam Stomply-Ericson) cast never misses a beat. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/9/18.)
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.