By Donald V. Calamia, EncoreMichigan.com
The music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller comes to life in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, which continues through Feb. 26.
The songwriting team met in 1950 at the age of 17, and together they crafted a number of major hits throughout the decade (and several beyond), many – if not most – of which found their way into this 39-song revue. Even if you don’t recognize the creators’ names, their groundbreaking tunes earned them a spot in both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and their music lives on, thanks to the star power of such luminaries as Elvis Presley who recorded their work. (Ever hear of a little ditty called “Hound Dog?” Yep, they wrote that one. “Jailhouse Rock?” That, too!)
Fast forward to 1994. Stephen Helper, Jack Viertel and Otis Sallid create a musical revue to celebrate Leiber and Stoller’s work and open it in Los Angeles. The next year it moves to Broadway, where it lasts for 2,036 performances. Why? I’m not sure.
While the music is amazing, that’s all there is to the show. There’s no story, no plot – and there’s not much characterization to build from or work with. So if watching a handful of talented performers sing and dance and shuffle quickly from one number to the next isn’t your thing, this show isn’t for you.
Luckily, director and choreographer Barbara F. Cullen brought together seven of the best and brightest performers from past Encore shows (plus one newbie) to tackle the project, and the result is a slick and enjoyable romp through the early rock ‘n’ roll years of the 1950s.
Fans of the show will likely notice Cullen’s production is down one performer from what’s called for in the “script.” However, the show doesn’t suffer in the least because of it. Instead, her version pairs the four men with the four women quite effectively – actually, any combination thereof works rather well – which often helps Cullen and her cast create some semblance of characters or storylines to work with.
Most notable is Brian E. Buckner, who seems to have the most fun. Usually working behind the scenes as The Encore’s music director, Buckner’s onstage energy is infectious. His skill as a performer is particularly outstanding in “D.W. Washburn,” in which he portrays a down-on-his-luck drunk who refuses help from well-meaning charity workers. And to be honest, he steels focus away from Thalia Schramm who sings “Pearl’s a Singer” while he plucks away at the piano keys with great animation.
Sebastian Gerstner, always a joy to watch on stage, shows off his dance skills in “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” while the gospel-inspired “Saved” is knocked out of the park by Amy Smidebush, whose exceptional vocal range is put to good use in a handful of numbers. And if the toe-tapping all around me was an indication, her “Fools Fall in Love” ranks in the top two or three numbers of the night.
Each of the other performers – Fatima Poggi, Tony D. Owens Jr., Steve DeBruyne and Cara Manor – has a moment or two to shine as well.
Music accompaniment under the direction of Cheryl Van Duzen is flawless. So too are the many, many costumes by Sharon Larkey Urik.
And while the curvy and moveable staircases designed by Leo Babcock add a cool ambience to the stage, the faint music symbols sketched on them (and the back wall) look incomplete and smudgy, serving as more of a distraction than anything else.
So as entertaining as the musical numbers are, I left the first Saturday performance thinking something was missing from the production – and it’s a feeling I’ve experienced with this show a handful of times before. Did the performers lack passion for this project, perhaps? Were they experiencing those infamous second-night blues? Or were the performers – many of whom are popular with regular patrons because of their abilities to create memorable characters on The Encore stage – simply constrained by the lack of meat the authors gave them to dig their acting chops into? Having observed and enjoyed much of their work since The Encore opened its doors a handful of years ago, I suspect the latter.
It’s now 24 hours later, and I can’t get Buckner’s “Love Potion #9” out of my head. That, I’d say, is what every successful musical endeavors to do.
For showtimes and tickets, go to EncoreMichgan.com.
Donald V. Calamia is the editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. He is also the theater editor of Between The Lines, for which he created The Wilde Awards, a “must attend” annual event at Detroit’s Gem Theatre that honors the work produced by the state’s professional theaters. Calamia is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Theatre Critics Association.