No doubt about it. With its songbook of 39 pop standards – rock and roll and rhythm-and-blues classics by the astonishing hit-making team of the 1950s and ’60 comprised of lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller – “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is awash in one of the great scores of the 20th century. And it should come as no surprise to learn that the show, which opened in New York in 1995, became the longest running musical revue in Broadway history.
But this is no simple “and then-they-wrote” medley. And it is better than ever in its current incarnation at the Drury Lane Theatre, where Marcia Milgrom Dodge (a New York-based director-choreographer whose long list of credits includes the rave-garnering 2009 Broadway revival of “Ragtime”), has turned the show into something very close to a full-fledged book musical as it weaves together the stories of the local characters portrayed by a phenomenal, highly individualistic cast of nine actor-singer-dancers.
‘SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE’
When: Through Oct. 23
Where: Drury Lane Theatre,
100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Run time: 2 hours and
25 minutes with one intermission
Taking her cue from “Neighborhood,” the sweetly nostalgic song that frames the show, Dodge has danced around the fact that two of numbers (“On Broadway” and “Spanish Harlem”), are firmly rooted in New York. She has done so by boldly transplanting the whole thing to Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market area, long considered the city’s immigrant gateway – and birthplace of both Chicago blues and the “Maxwell Street Polish” sausage sandwich – even if in recent years it has been gentrified beyond recognition.
Kevin Depinet’s massively detailed, playfully grimy streetwise set, and Sully Ratke’s zesty late 1950s style costumes, put us in the perfect time frame and second-hand-goods state of mind. And paired with sensational music direction by Roberta Duchak, and a swinging five-piece onstage band fully engaged in the action, the whole thing becomes instant magic.
Although each of the actors morphs into several different characters, they all have an essential identity. Donica Lynn is Willie Mae, the proprietor of a diner where Annette (Amy Orman), a young dancer and roller skater, works as a waitress. Meghan Murphy is Ruth, the woman with a troubled love life who lives in a second floor apartment. And Pearl (Carrie Abernathy) is a glamorous but struggling street performer who also has man troubles.
The men include Sonny (Sean Blake), a sharply dressed hustler; Little Walter (Justin Keyes), a young alcoholic bum; Doc (Tyrone L. Robinson), a mechanic often seen in his factory worker jumpsuit; Cornelius (Chris Sams), a lovesick soldier; and Rod (Will Skrip), a hipster college boy whose biggest love affair is with his car.
Each and every number becomes a little self-contained scenario, and all are brilliantly performed, with terrific synchronized choreography for the men (take that Jersey Boys) that winningly bears the stamp of their five very different personalities.
In a show that all but brings the house down with each number, there is no denying that Lynn (so astonishing as Effie in last season’s Porchlight Music Theatre production of “Dreamgirls”) brings down the house with the roof-raising, scat-infused first act finale, “Saved.” It is ideally preceded by a very funny take on “D.W. Washburn,” in which a Christian family (Skrip, Murphy and Orman) do their best to save Little Walter (Sams), who will have none of it. Lynn also has the audience roaring as she gives Elvis Presley a run for his money with her rendition of “Hound Dog,” leaving her no-good boyfriend cowering like a naughty four-footed creature.
For pure blazing torch singing, there is Murphy, a sparkling redhead with a dynamite voice, who sends her guy packing in “I Keep Forgettin’,” and gives a fervent boost to a self-doubting friend in “Pearl’s a Singer.” Orman, in a red fringed mini dress, gets up on a table to strut her stuff in “Teach Me How to Shimmy.” Abernathy – who can shift from glam to nerd in the blink of an eye – easily sets a “Poison Ivy” contagion in motion. And when it comes time to belt out “I’m a Woman,” these ladies leave you with no doubt about their multi-tasking prowess.
Keyes’ blistering take on “I (Who have Nothing)” is absolutely shattering. And Robinson (and his pals) bring the hoochie-coochie girl “Little Egypt” to life in the most hilarious way.
Applause for Chris Sargent, the invaluable conductor, keyboardist (and moody singer), as well as for the superb sax player Jim Gailloreto and for guitarist Buddy Fambro, bass player Chuck Webb and percussionist Ben Johnson. In league with the actors they tap the pain in “Fools Fall in Love” and then get the place going with “Jailhouse Rock.” Yes, “Baby, That is Rock & Roll.”