Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr.
The latest in 54 Below’s series of reuniting original stars of Broadway shows, was Lieber & Stoller’s smash hit “Smokey Joe’s Café” 14 years after its Broadway premiere. And what a night it was, with a packed house at both shows. The act on February 9th was directed by original cast member Brenda Braxton and the music supervision and arrangements were by the original Broadway production’s music arranger, Louis St. Louis, and he chose the best of the original cast’s orchestra to perform this tribute: Dave Keyes as conductor and on acoustical piano, Brian Brake on drums, Paul Nowinski on bass, Frank Pagano on percussion, George Naha on guitar, Mark Berman on synthesizer, Chris Eminizer on saxophone. The opening number was “In the Neighborhood” and it was sung by many of the original cast members plus some of the first replacements elegantly dressed: Adrian Bailey, Braxton, DeLee Lively, Ken Ard, Darryl Williams, Deb Lyons, Frederic Owens, Ramona Keller, and Michael Park.
From that smashing opening, with everyone in the audience cheering, we were treated as these artists recreated an opening night fourteen years later! “Smokey Joe’s Café” had no book; it had one set, the musician’s café, and all these wonderful singers singing the songs from the score in the order they were sang on that smash hit. Some of the faces may have aged (one man used a cane and was helped to and from the stage on his entrances and exits) but all their voices were still powerful and they were all having a ball as we were chosen to participate in their joy!
With such a great line-up, it’s hard to select highlights but some of them were Lively singing “Falling,” Park singing “Ruby Ruby,” Braxton with her red boa strutting to “Don Juan,” and killing with the gospel rock “Saved;” the whole company rocking with “Yakety Yak” with that great bass voice comments on “Charlie Brown,” Park and Lively (in a costume change) doing the great “Teach Me How To Shimmy,” with all its wild body moves; the women doing the Peggy Lee hit “I’m A Woman,” Bailey re-creating “Love Potion #9,” and Park doing his Elvis number “Jailhouse Rock” and singing “Spanish Harlem.” You may suspect this would get monotonous, but it never did because even after one show-stopper, there was immediately another! And the cast, with short rehearsal time, was having a great time and that feeling was contagious. In the audience cheering them were the original director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Joey McKneeley.
Unlike the City Center Encore series and the Musical Tonight series, this series omits the book and focuses on the scores of the shows. (“Smokey Joe’s Café” which ran for over 2,000 performances on Broadway did not have any book. Watch for future shows at www.54below.com ‘s calendar.