Review: 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' comes alive in The Encore's new space
Courtesy of The Encore Musical Theatre Company
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” the longest running revue on Broadway, is a historic show for The Encore Musical Theatre Company. It’s the company’s first musical on stage since the pandemic thwarted life and has the honor of being the inaugural production to christen their new performance space; and is an exemplary showcase for what audiences can expect from future seasons. Graduating from the intimate black box style format, The Encore’s improved theatre comes alive in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” with excellent sound design/mixing, eye-popping choreography, sexy shimmy’s, and an electric ensemble who literally bring the house down.
It’s true, The Encore’s revamped digs allow for theatregoers to have an immersive, one-of-a-kind experience. Walking into the performance on opening weekend, you feel transported to another decade. A simpler time when the pandemic didn’t exist and musicians let loose, busted out their guitars, and belted like there was no tomorrow. Director Dan Cooney has crafted a winning recipe, bringing the songs of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller to regional audiences in soothing, award-worthy renditions. Told without so much as an utterance of dialogue, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” forgoes a traditional narrative, but the songs pieced together in specific succession hint at a broader range of what the musical is aiming for. Cooney also stages the proceedings with several subplots happening in the rearview, juicing up the musical numbers with bits of character flavor. Everywhere you look, something is happening.
36 songs make-up this tight, 90-minute, intermission-less production and Cooney, along with award-winning choreographer Gerry McIntyre, keep the momentum swift between scene transitions as the performers step in and out of songs ranging from somber classics: “Neighborhood” and “Falling” to jukebox hits “Hounddog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Stand By Me.” The cast, Jason Briggs, Jordyn Davis, Bryanna Hall, Dan Johnson, Chris Joseph,
Gayle E. Martin, Tyler Messigner, David Magumba, and Sarah B. Stevens, all take on the show’s heavy load, hardly leaving the stage for so much as a water break. They’re interwoven into every number, whether sitting on stage in the background harmonizing with
music director Tyler Driskill and his incredible five-piece orchestra, or dancing the night away through a swell of quick changes under which costume designer Sharon Urick deserves major kudos.
It’s hard to single out specific numbers as “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is a group effort, but I’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the range and vocal presence of Jason Briggs who is larger than life in “Spanish Harlem.” Likewise, Jordyn Davis flawlessly energizes several numbers, but her voice transcends in “Falling” and her dance moves in “Teach Me How to Shimmy” are immaculate. Chris Joseph radiates the room with his “Love Potion Number 9," and Gayle Martin’s mid-show stunner “Saved” creates an almost out-of-body experience. Finally, David Magumba‘s “I (Who Have Nothing)” without question is one of the best performances (of any song) to ever grace The Encore’s stage. God level stuff.
Sarah Tanner‘s set design takes on a character of its own, decorated to the nines with historical tidbits, old-fashioned values, and an open space with plenty of room for the actors to bust a move. The entire theater has been outfitted with cafe tables to give the ambiance of a jazz cafe. The sound design by regional staple Christopher Goosman (along with sound technician Meg Berg) gels seamlessly with Driskill’s team of skilled musicians. You couldn’t assemble a better crew to make sure The Encore’s first surrey back into live theater goes off without any major issues. There’s not much to complain about here.
Then again, The Encore has always been a barometer for quality, local theatre and now their new space will provide ample opportunity to stage elaborate, bigger musicals with massive casts and choreography. Even in the previous, smaller space, The Encore was already making magic with huge ensemble shows like “Crazy for You" or “Anything Goes” in impressive fashion. None such intimacy or layers have been lost in the multi-million dollar transition between buildings, but if ever there was a time to rush out and purchase a ticket, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” brings toe-tapping rhythm and newfound innovation to The Encore’s stage.
The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE continues through October 10th. Tickets can be purchased here.