“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” which opened Thursday night at the NorShor Theatre, is a musical revue, which is like a jukebox musical only without a plot. Or characters.
Just talented musicians, singers and dancers making for an enjoyable evening of song.
The 29 songs making up “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” have words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote hits for the Coasters, Elvis and many others.
Director-choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell certainly makes the most of the opportunities afforded by a musical revue. He cuts songs, moves songs and uses “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown” to end intermission with the audience shouting out the refrains.
Ferrell also had to decide who and how many get to sing what songs and added dancing to most of the numbers.
Of the baker’s dozen performers, Brandon A. Jackson, Kiko Laureano, Gabriel Mayfield, Eden Nesburg, Shad Olsen and Christina Stroup are the primary singers. There are solos, duets, trios, quartets and group numbers, mixed and matched to create an ebb and flow to the show.
“I’m a Woman” had the audience hooting and hollering, as did Olsen’s “Jailhouse Rock.” I also liked what Nesburg brought to “Love Potion No. 9.”
A definite showstopper was Stroup’s “Hound Dog,” sung directly to the director with some pretty pointed zingers tossed in between the lyrics.
I would like to think everybody can get to double figures on how many of these songs they remember, but there should be unfamiliar songs you will like as well. For me, those were “Keep on Rollin’’’ sung as a quartet and Laureano’s “Some Cats Know.”
Jeff Brown, responsible for both lights and scenic design, elevates the sextet of musicians and lights everything as if we were at a concert. This makes perfect sense because the evening reminded me more of seeing Postmodern Jukebox on that stage than any musical.
Nick Gosen’s sound design puts actual microphones in the hands of the singers, so that when Stroup is down on her knees as her voice soars in the dramatic conclusion of “I (Who Have Nothing),” she sounds great.
This was the best sound mix of musicians and singers I have heard at the Duluth Playhouse.
The fun to be had with the dancing is established early on when Daysha LaNaé Ramsey embodies the “Young Blood” that the guys are singing about.
I especially liked Jesse Davis and Krysti Wiita’s dancing around the two chairs in Mayfield and Daysha Ramsey's “You’re the Boss” (which had the best button of the night). Wiita’s sultry solo during Mayfield’s “Spanish Harlem” also stood out.
In “On Broadway,” each dancer takes the red bowler hat and has their moment in the spotlight, but I was disappointed each solo turn was so brief. They should have been way longer.
Jackson finished off both acts in grand style, first with the raise-the-roof, gospel-fueled “Saved” and then with an extremely heartfelt “Stand by Me.” Both times, audience members could not wait for him to finish singing to yell out and start applauding.
A musical revue is clearly more like a concert.
Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune.
If you go
What: "Smokey Joe’s Cafe"
Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through September 29