Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's songs are so much a part of our lives, so universal in their ubiquity that you may not even know who wrote them. But rest assured, they are likely among your all-time favorites. Now, thanks to the sparkling, imaginative Studio Tenn revival of Smokey Joe's Café-the Tony Award-nominated musical revue that collects some 39 (although a couple were cut, so we'll place the number at 37 for this production) of those terrific Leiber and Stoller songs into one smooth, entertaining package- you can revel in the music (heck, you can even sing along) and set your feet to tapping out the rhythms of your life, expressed so evocatively by director Matt Logan's eight-member cast.
Logan, who not only directs but also designs Studio Tenn's critically acclaimed shows, sets the revue in the eponymously named Smokey Joe's Café, a fictional street corner dive set right on the stage of the historic Franklin Theater (there's even a full bar that's open to patrons before the show and during intermission), which provides the venue for a reunion of "Shimmy's Shakes," a group of friends who are gathered together to celebrate their enduring friendships and relationships. It's a brilliant decision on Logan's part because it builds a framework-sans dialogue-for the performance of those timeless Leiber and Stoller songs. This theatrical conceit also allows for a more organic delivery of the songs, each one evoking memories for the onstage characters and for audiences, providing structure for a show that so obviously needs it in order to appeal to a wider swath of fans.
Stylistically and technically, Logan's vision for Smokey Joe's Café is as stunning as all of his earlier sets for shows such as A Christmas Carol, The Miracle Worker and The Sound of Music, and thanks to technical director Mitch White (who, according to executive producer Jake Speck, built it all by himself) they transform the minuscule Franklin Theatre stage completely. With his customary attention to detail, the place comes alive even before Logan's eight remarkable performers take the stage, and with Stephen Moss' stunning lighting design, the setting is made even more real, adding shadings and colors to provide ambience and lighting wizardry to make the cavalcade of songs concert-worthy. Design-wise, Smokey Joe's Café is an eye-popping visual delight.
Musically, thanks to that aforementioned ensemble of performers and to musical director/conductor Stephen Kummer and his band, Smokey Joe's Café provides audiences with a feast of memorable songs performed by a capable cast, some of whom are well-known on local stages, others newcomers we're delighted to welcome to Music City.
Melinda Doolittle, the Belmont University alumna who was robbed-robbed, I tell ya!-of the American Idol title only to become a pop culture icon (if she's good enough for "Old Christine," she's certainly good enough for me) and recording industry bright light, leads the cast with an easy, jazz-flavored, gospel-tinged bravura performance. She leads "Saved" with religious fervor and showstopping zeal and her "Fools Fall In Love" is gorgeous, sumptuous and beautifully rendered.
Doolittle is joined onstage by Laura Matula, the local musical theater and cabaret star who somehow miraculously manages to show off even more versatility than we've seen before, displaying an appealingly fun side to her well-known serious focus. "Don Juan" provides her with a showcase for both her vocal chops and her tremendous comedic abilities.
Ryan Greenawalt, another Belmont alum, who starred earlier this year in Street Theatre Company's production of Jason Robert Brown's The Last 5 Years, and is given the chance to show off his own talents to greater effect in this musical revue. "Teach Me How to Shimmy" is one of the show's musical highlights.