By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Swenson
By David Villano
By Kyle Swenson
By John Thomason
By Michele Eve
Is the glass half empty or half full? Thoughtful theatergoers may rue what may be missing on the South Florida stage scene -- classical productions, experimental theatricality, multimedia -- but none can deny the area's strengths, chief among them plenty of entertaining, vigorously produced musical offerings. Any number of musicals and musical revues are running simultaneously this season, yet there seems to be an unending supply of hard-working, talented singer/dancers to perform them. And if the home team needs augmentation, plenty of bone-chilled New York gypsies are willing to jet down to our sunny climes. So too are former Floridians who, having honed their skills on Broadway and in the regionals, keep flocking back to their native state like migratory birds. Whatever the reasons, the overall experience level is quite high and the available talent pool quite deep, in contrast to the much smaller "legit" talent pool.
Some area theaters play to these strengths, among them the Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables. With its slate favoring musical revues and musicals, there isn't all that much acting going on there, or, for that matter, many plays, but never mind. The playhouse may stick too closely to slap-happy, commercial programming, but the audiences keep coming back. And while some, me included, might argue for the importance of challenging an audience, it's hard to argue with success.
Producer Barbara Stein and artistic director David Arisco are among the canniest impresarios in the state. They know not only how to program a winning season and stage their shows with flair but also how to market the hell out of them. And the playhouse's level of corporate and government support only reinforces the cold, hard fact that producing theater takes more than vision; it takes persistence and basic commercial skills. There's a reason they don't call it "show art."
Which brings us around to the playhouse's latest offering, Smokey Joe's Café, yet another straight-from-New York musical revue that follows on the heels of 4 Guys Named José... and una Mujer Named Maria, the Latin-themed show that continues to play in the playhouse's upstairs theater space. Whereas the latter is a compendium of tunes from many songwriters, Smokey Joe's focuses on two, the amazingly prolific team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller are not, nor ever were, household names, but their songs sure were and still are immediately recognizable even today. Remember "Kansas City"? How about "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Spanish Harlem," "Love Potion #9," and "Jailhouse Rock"? All Leiber and Stoller. Beginning in 1950, when both were only 17 years old, this duo wrote dozens of hits for the biggest acts in the burgeoning pop-music business: Elvis Presley, the Drifters, the Coasters... the list is long.
The show is strictly a revue, with one song (and oftentimes a song and dance) seguing into another. There is some wisdom to this straight, no-chaser approach as it avoids dealing with a "book," a showbiz term for a musical's plotline that creates characters and some sort of dramatic throughline to link the songs. While 4 Guys suffers from a very weak book, Smokey Joe's steers clear of a plot altogether. And why not? The show is blessed with a superlative cast of performers who deliver one knockout number after another. There's not enough room here to list every kudo, but let it be said that the talent in this cast roster is so strong, I can envision any number of spin-off shows. Playhouse regular Reggie Whitehead, who delivers "Poison Ivy" and "Spanish Harlem" with equal finesse, is sheer energy on-stage, reminiscent in vocal style and energy of the late, great Jackie Wilson. Then there's Lainie Gulliksen's fiery rendition of the little-heard gem "I Keep Forgettin,'" which got me thinking that someone should write a Dusty Springfield revue for her. Kathleen Murphy Jackson's vocal range and versatility serves up a stunning, original take on "Hound Dog," the old Elvis hit -- it's like hearing the song for the first time.
These magic moments flare up frequently in Smokey Joe's, and that's the glass half full. The glass half empty is that they flame out too quickly. Once Juson Williams, another fireball of talent, gets wound up into the classic "On Broadway," the number's over. Same with Derrick Cobey's powerful "I (Who Have Nothing)." There are so many numbers in the show -- 37 songs and several reprises -- that none gets much stage time. Better to have cut some lesser tunes and expanded the great ones. But who to do this? No one is credited with having conceived or shaped this show, a decided mystery since, though there is no book, certainly someone chose which songs to use and in what order. Some numbers match up too well: "Yakety Yak" segues into "Charlie Brown," which tends to point out that, musically, they are almost identical.
David Arisco's production is serviceable but doesn't rise to the level of his performers. He and choreographer Barbara Flaten fall into the trap of overstaging the numbers that happen to have narrative elements. The result is a series of clever but largely irrelevant dance concepts that tend to obscure the songs and the singers in a flurry of choreography. Fortunately, the directors dispense with much of this strategy in the second half, allowing more focus on the music, the lyrics, and the performers.