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SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE, a pleasant summer escape at Cain Park

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

A musical review, by the very nature of its structure, is usually not of great interest to those theatre-goers who want a story line or an over-riding theme.  Someone attends a musical review because there is a tuneful style or type of music that you like or there are some singers performing who you want to hear.

SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ, now on stage at the Alma Theatre in Cain Park, showcases 39 rock and roll, and rhythm and blues songs that were composed by Tony Award winners Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.    Its claim to fame is that it ran long enough after its 1995 Broadway opening to claim the title of the “longest-running musical review in Broadway history.”

The list of songs is impressive.  They include Falling, Trouble, Fools Fall in Love, Yakety Yak, Spanish Harlem, Loving You, Hound Dog, There Goes My Baby, Fools Fall in Love and Stand By Me.  Yes, there are novelty songs, romantic ballads, and the sounds of Elvis.  But, what there isn’t is a theme.  That means there is no story line or hooks to tie the songs together.

The lack of a story, makes it difficult for director Scott Plate and choreographer Gregory Daniels to create anything but a series of individual entities.  It’s like 39 one-act plays without any of them having anything to do with the other 38.

Plate and Daniels make every effort to devise concepts for each number.  They mostly succeed, but even these talented guys run out of ideas.

Musical Director Nathan Motta stands stage right, in front of his great sounding  band, and dances and sways to the musical sounds.  It adds a nice feel, but his gyrations sometimes upstage the performers by drawing attention away from their dancing and movements.

There is a great sax solo by David Kasper during the rock and roll segment in Act 2.

The cast (Ellis Dawson, Eugene Sumlin, Malik Victorian, Darryl Lewis, Julia Rose Hines, Kelly Autry, Nyla Watson, Katherine Deboer and Nicole Sumlin) have good voices, move well, and generally sing meanings rather than words, thus creating sense out of most of the songs.

Trad Burns’ set design is distracting.  Rather than setting a café in which the format would make sense, he places the production in what looks like a factory.  Performers duck under set levels and basically crawl out of a short uppermost doorway.  There is a grungy lack of intimacy, in spite of the performers being almost within touching distance of the audience.

Words to the songs often get lost in the tent like Alma Theatre.  Soft walls, hard floors and outside noises makes sound designer Richard Ingraham’s task difficult.

Tesia Dugan Benson’s costume designs are often confusing.  Clothing sometimes doesn’t fit the mood of a song.   After a while the hodge-podge of colors and materials became a suffocating blur.

Highlight numbers included Dance With Me and Searchin’, which were peppered with cute shticks, On Broadway, which had clever and enthusiastic choreography, Saved, which showcased unbridled enthusiasm, the smile-inducing Charlie Brown, and I Am Woman, probably the best sung song of the evening.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  If you are interested in an evening of pleasant singing and dancing SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ will be your thing.  Me?  I like musicals with a story line or at least an attempt to make the “pieces parts” fit together.

Tickets for SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE, which runs through June 30 at Cain Park’s Alma Theater, can be obtained by calling 216-371-3000 or going on line to