By Kay Kipling
Even if you’ve seen the musical Smokey Joe’s Café several times, as I have, you’ll probably still find yourself caught up in Florida Studio Theatre’s current production. It’s not just a wave of nostalgia for all those great ’50s and ’60s tunes by legendary team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, although remembering where you were and who you were when you first heard them is definitely part of the appeal. It’s that the creators of the piece—Stephen Helper, Jack Viertel and Otis Sallid, with assists from the songwriters themselves—planted the songs with a storytelling approach that would reach you even if you weren’t familiar with them.
Of course most audience members at FST will be familiar with songs like Don’t Be Cruel, Poison Ivy, On Broadway, Stand By Me and many more. But they should enjoy hearing them in a new way, with the opening number, In the Neighborhood, introducing us to some archetypal characters looking back on their (and our) growing-up memories. The action later switches to the café of the title, giving us a more glitzy nighttime setting in addition to the back-at-home one.
Under the direction of Kevyn Morrow, who also choreographed, the nine-member cast is full of verve, upbeat except when the song calls for otherwise, and always on the move. A four-man ensemble (James Harkness, Arthur W. Marks, Devin Roberts and Jason Veasey) provides the doo-wop voices; Thomas Rainey handles some of the Elvis numbers, like Jailhouse Rock; Brittany Avey is by turns innocent ingénue and shimmy queen; Karen Burthwright is the vamp who leaves poor Don Juan when his money’s gone; Allyson Kaye Daniel the hot mama who knows how to sock it to her man with a song like Hound Dog; and Lianne Marie Dobbs a powerful vocal presence and actress on such tunes as Pearl’s a Singer.
They’re all talented and deliver the goods, but Marks probably gets the most love from the audience for his comic performances in a number of songs—also proving, on Act II’s I (Who Have Nothing) that he can soar on drama as well.
The production’s band, under the music direction of Corinne Aquilina, performs sometimes seen, sometimes partly hidden by the simple moving panels of the set design, and they definitely know how to rock. Throw in some convincing and evocative costumes by Lynda Salsbury and that solid Morrow staging, and you’ve got an engaging evening of entertainment.
Smokey Joe’s Café continues through Jan. 3; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.