‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ Theater Review: Rockin’ With Leiber and Stoller All Over Again

The Off Broadway revue presents dozens of tunes through preserved-in-amber-tinted glasses

Last Updated: July 23, 2018 @ 6:15 PM

The songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had a knackety-knack for melodies — and for elevating early rock ‘n’ roll and pop music in the 1950s and ’60s with a mix of musicianship and theatricality.

They also had a flair for novelty songs with call-and-response lyrics like “Yakety-Yak” (“Don’t talk back”) and “Charlie Brown” (“He’s a clown”). And those elements made their song catalog a natural for theater producers, who mashed up dozens of their hits into a 1995 revue that ran on Broadway for nearly five years.

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is now back in New York City, opening Sunday at Off Broadway’s Stage 42 in an elaborately staged new production that presents Leiber and Stoller’s tunes that wallows in nostalgia and old-fashioned showmanship.

A talented cast of five guys and four women segue from song to song without pausing for dialogue, and restrict dramatization to the characters in the songs themselves — from nightclub singer Pearl to hoochy-koochy dancer Little Egypt to the county jail inmate who narrates the Elvis classic “Jailhouse Rock.”

There’s not a weak link in the cast, though there are standouts: Nicole Vanessa Ortiz and Kyle Taylor Parker are classic belters who can let it rip on big notes. Jelani Remy and Dionne D. Figgins are the most spirited of the dancers, bringing a real energy to the often witty choreography of Joshua Bergasse, who also directs. (He turns “Dance With Me” into a comic gem with Figgins struggling through the left-footed male cast until she finds her true match in Remy.)

Alysha Umphress, who last worked with Bergasse on the recent Broadway revival of “On the Town,” gets a substantial number of the story songs, and also does the most vocal runs of the cast — though with an always-in-control restraint that reflects her theatrical training rather than anything truly rock ‘n’ roll.

And there’s the rub for this production: It’s an enjoyable showcase of classic rock-pop tunes that seldom really lets loose, even when it occasionally sends the cast into the audience to encourage participation.

Bergasse & Co. also color within the lines in other ways too, invoking a nostalgia that probably seemed dated even in 1995.

“Teach Me How to Shimmy” sees Max Sangerman and a four-man chorus serenade (and objectify) Emma Degerstedt as she shakes her body and a fringey pink mini dress (designed by Alejo Vietti). And when fools fall in love in a production of 40 songs, it’s always, always with the opposite sex.

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” isn’t just a throwback to a bygone era — it chooses to see the whole wide world through preserved-in-amber-tinted glasses.