by Alix Cohen
Never underestimate the power of superbly performed, old fashioned, rock n’ roll. Director/ Choreographer Joshua Bergasse imbues this exceptional production with attitude, soul, winking humor, ebullience, and energy. Creative, often synchronized moves show an eye for composition and authentic feel for the period and lyrics. The vast stage is well employed. Pacing and flow couldn’t be better.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller met at Fairfax Records in Los Angeles. Their 61 year collaboration resulted in over 70 chart hits including iconic songs for Elvis Presley, The Coasters, and The Drifters. Influence of rhythm and blues and high production values brought a new sound to Pop.
The show surges forward without a word of dialogue making ninety minutes go fast. Opening with “Neighborhood” creates a reunion of the gathering. John Edwards, Jelani Remy, Dwayne Cooper, and Kyle Taylor Parker then launch into “Youngblood” with cool, buoyant choreography. Facial expressions are sublime.
“Dance With Me” spotlights Dionne D. Figgins who gets ample opportunity to strut her sinuous stuff in several demonstrative numbers, aptly adjusting temper to each. (And she can sing!) One by one, the men prove comically inept until Dwayne Cooper takes her waist. Here’s a triple threat actor who sings, dances, and projects what he’s feeling. The two also pair for “Don Juan”…your money’s gone/And if you’re money’s gone/Your baby’s gone… replete with squeal and growl. Prime.
A second funny sequence arrives with the western “Along Came Jones”… Tall, thin Jones/Slow-walkin’ Jones/Slow-talkin’ Jones …as most men don cowboy hats while one wears a bonnet and blonde pigtails. In a Perils of Pauline set-up, our heroine finds herself rescued from one threatening scrape after another by a character as wide-eyed as Dudley Do-Right. “He’s tien’ me up, same routine,” she comments jaded.
“Keep On Rollin,” partly a capella, is imaginatively staged with vocals, washboard and spoons. A quartet authentically plays these instruments. ‘Super arrangement. During “Poison Ivy,” helmed by John Edwards, it’s arm to shoulder single file, swivel, turn, walk, pump, clap, kick…neon bar signs light. Edwards also fronts “Stand By Me” and offers as soulful an “I Who Have Nothing” as you’re likely to hear.
The rubber limbed Jelani Remy erupts into “Jailhouse Rock” in full rotating gyration; on toes, heels, wide step, slide, somersault, back flip, chair tip, and crazy air guitar. “Well, thank you very much,” he intones in the superstar’s voice when the crowd goes wild. Also an Elvis Presley signature, “Hound Dog” is sung by an accusatory Nicole Vanessa Ortiz with swaggering, soaring power. I for one would not want to get this character angry.
Kyle Taylor Parker ably takes the lead on “There Goes My Baby.” “Did she love me?!” he haltingly asks each man who gives him a white hankie in response. And “Love Potion #9,” propped with smoking green liquid and adroitly balanced restaurant trays. Alysha Umphress and Max Sangerman perform a country “Pearl’s A Singer,” and with Ortiz, a rousing “Kansas City.”
There’s an animated “Yakety Yak,” the put-upon “Charlie Brown”- listen for the perfect bass, a hot “Little Egypt,” legato “Spanish Harlem,” bristling, belted “I’m A Woman” and that’s not all. When this audience rises to its feet before and after the encore, its gesture is actually (uncommonly) ap0propriate. I’m with them. Go. Have a great time.
Sonny Palladino’s top notch arrangements and wonderful, onstage band raise material to the level of gourmet- without pretention. You’ll bob in your seat, tap your feet and leave with cheeks sore from grinning.
Beowulf Boritt’s intricate, two story bar Set is a visual feast featuring vintage radios, neon signs, dark brick, wrought iron, and atmosphere. Hand in glove with Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, the large space comes alive in different visuals supporting musical mood.
Caveats: Emma Degerstadt looks and acts like she wandered onto the wrong stage. The gypsy wouldn’t know street attitude if it bit her. She has neither the pith nor the moves for this piece.
Alysha Umphress has a fine voice but sings using volume and control without emotional investment. She also stands stock still on a stage otherwise vibrating with exhibited feeling.
Photos (except as indicated) by Joan Marcus
Smokey Joe’s Café – The Songs of Leiber & Stoller
Words And Music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Directed and Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Music Supervisor and New Arrangements by Sonny Paladino
Stage 42 422 West 42nd Street NYC