Feasting on Pop Nostalgia, Hurriedly

Posted July 22, 2018 9:57 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — An airy red-brick room with an imposing dark-wood bar, it looks like some place you’ve probably been. Lit by neon, crammed with the past, it’s lovingly lined with vintage radios. This is Smokey Joe’s Cafe, as channeled by the Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt — a place of warm nostalgia and, with three staircases spiraling down from the steel-beam second level, gritty elegance.

If only the new revival of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse at Stage 42, were as alluring as Boritt’s scenery. This is a show that badly wants to be liked, but in its eagerness it comes across as relentless and overly polished.

Racing through 40 musical numbers in 90 intermissionless, patter-free minutes, it only occasionally slows down enough to breathe. It’s a production so hellbent that it doesn’t feel like a celebration. And if a jukebox musical should be anything, it should be that.

Mind you, it likely doesn’t matter what a critic says about “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” The original Broadway production hardly wowed the press when it opened in 1995, but it ran for nearly five years anyway, tapping into the enduring popularity of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s classic pop-song catalog: midcentury tunes like “Dance With Me,” “Fools Fall in Love” and “Treat Me Nice.”

For many, a pleasant evening in the company of such tunes is probably entertainment enough. Bergasse has quite an array of talent and professionalism at his disposal — not just the cast of five men and four women but also the excellent musicians, whose bandstand emerges every now and then from the alcove in the set where it’s tucked away. (The bassist, Yuka Tadano, is particularly appealing.)

That’s why it’s disheartening that this version of the revue, its song list slightly different in makeup and order from the original, largely doesn’t do what a jukebox musical — or even a great cabaret set — ideally ought to: make you hear long-familiar songs in a new way, remind you of beloved melodies that you’d forgotten and send you home raring to take a deep dive into Spotify.

Something about most of these numbers feels factory-made, as if the artists had been pressed into a creative mold rather than entrusted to interpret the songs anew and let their own personalities come through. The production errs on the side of caution, and that is an error, indeed. When Leiber and Stoller’s songs first came out of the radio, sung by Elvis Presley or the Drifters or Ben E. King, they may have been produced to the hilt, but there was passion in them.

There are moments in the production when fresh energy breaks through, though, and they often occur when the show pulls back and goes for simplicity. Dionne D. Figgins and Dwayne Cooper infuse “You’re the Boss” with a teasing romance and sexual heat, and “Loving You” is a gorgeously unadorned display of doo-wop harmonies. Nicole Vanessa Ortiz is a terrifically cool customer in her dry take on “Hound Dog,” while Alysha Umphress is at her best with the mournful, country-flavored “Pearl’s a Singer.”

Umphress, by the way, is bigger than the other women onstage, and the costume designer, Alejo Vietti, doesn’t seem to have known how to work with that, dressing her in an unnecessarily unflattering way. He does better with the skimpy, yet not overly revealing, pink fringe outfit Emma Degerstedt wears, and jiggles in, for the leering number “Teach Me How to Shimmy.”

Kyle Taylor Parker is the standout comic presence, beginning when he plays the damsel in distress in “Along Came Jones,” while Figgins — a veteran of Dance Theater of Harlem — is the show’s ace dancer. Her duet with Jelani Remy, as he sings “Spanish Harlem,” makes that lovely number simmer.

These are the times when something like joy blossoms onstage. What these artists and this show are delivering is comfort food, and right now is not a bad time to be selling that. But with warmth gone missing, this feast can seem packaged in cellophane.


More Information:

‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller’

At Stage 42; 212-239-6200, smokeyjoescafemusical.com.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.