Smokey Joe's Cafe at Stage 42
by Mo Brady
With a cast of just nine performers, Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a showcase for musical theatre artists. of leading men and women. A fast-paced review of rock and roll and rhythm and blues standards written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the entire roster of actors are given ample opportunity to step forward and soak in the spotlight. What audiences may not realize when watching these performers is that when a cast consists of only nine actors, the leads must also act as the show’s ensemble.
Take, for example, the talented Jelani Remy. Moments after finishing a commanding rendition of “Jailhouse Rock” (complete with multiple tumbling passes), he artfully transitions into a member of a quintet performing a reprise of the show’s titular song. The ease with which he glides between leading man and ensemblist is almost unbelievable and undeniably impressive.
Remy is matched in his expert performance by the rest of the cast, who each shine in multiple ways throughout the show. Throughout the 100-minute revue, he is showcased alongside Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards and Kyle Taylor Parker. While each of these four actors possess their own unique movement and vocal styles, they unequivocally work together using the same language. Performing director/choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s staging with definitive elegance, it’s impossible to imagine a more in-sync quartet than these four.
A loosely-related progression of songs, the success of Smokey Joe’s Cafe rides or dies on the vocal stylings of its performances. Luckily, this new production features precise and passionate vocalists. In songs ranging from the upbeat “Kansas City” to ballad “Loving You,” Max Sangerman possesses a tambour that makes his voice as smooth as butter. Nicole Vanessa Ortiz truly brings the house down with her rendition of “Fools Fall in Love.” Twice. In 90 minutes. Look out for Ortiz, because this won’t be the last New York audiences will hear of her.
Beyond vocals, the production gives each of the actors ample opportunity to showcase their skill sets. Dwayne Cooper somehow simultaneously exhibits unbelievable bass notes, a precise movement style and charming humor, capped with a winning smile. Dionne D. Figgins, who wowed audiences with her dancing in the original casts of Broadway’s Memphis and Motown, also showcases her smooth and sultry voice to astounding effect.
It is truly unfair how talented John Edwards is. Between his exacting execution of Bergasse’s joyful choreography, his precision of tone and his ability to hold the audience in the palm of his hand, it’s difficult to name a better match between performer and material among this year's theatrical offerings. His performance of “I Who Have Nothing” is a no-holds-barred masterclass of soul music performance.
It would be a crime not to call out Alysha Umphress, who holds the audience in the palm of her hand throughout the show. Unequivocally one of Broadway’s most skilled vocalists, Umphress showcases a singular control over her vocal styling. In songs ranging from “I Keep Forgettin'” to “Trouble,” she brings a refreshing ease and elegance to her performances. Twisting and gliding her way through melodies, she creates vocal paths that are surprising and inspiring.
What’s the plot of Smokey Joe’s Cafe? I’m not completely sure. Does it matter? Not at all. The show’s nine top-notch performers knock the material out of the park time and again.