Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber And Stoller | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber And Stoller 

at the Schubert Theatre

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SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE: THE SONGS OF LEIBER AND STOLLER, at the Shubert Theatre. First developed at Chicago's Royal George Theatre a couple seasons back, this anthology of 1950s and '60s hits by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (called then Baby That's Rock 'n' Roll) came off as a glorified show-lounge revue. Now, in a revised Broadway-scale version, it comes off as an industrial show--slick, sleek, and soulless. When Broadway hit doctor Jerry Zaks stepped in to retool it, I'd hoped he'd give it more dramatic substance; instead, he's made it even more generic, eliminating all but the most superficial connections among the nine polished singer-dancers. Seasoned pros all, this touring company generates instant but unconvincing feeling at the drop of a downbeat. Sassy, sophisticated, dorky, raunchy, rebellious, melodramatically anguished, sweetly nostalgic--these cats and chicks shift moods with the efficiency of a jukebox flipping chart-topping singles at the command of a quarter.

Still, the good-looking cast has impressive musical skills and smooth moves, and while too many of the songs are throwaways, a few have substance: pop classics like "Hound Dog," "On Broadway," and "Spanish Harlem" as well as witty, jazz-inflected character sketches such as "Some Cats Know" and "Don Juan" (both deliciously delivered by the smart, sensuous Reva Rice). But the on-and-off emotions never build into an affecting whole; the powerhouse vocals too often seem to come from nowhere deeper than skilled session singers' trick bags. Remember Rubber Soul? Well, this is Plastic Pop.

--Albert Williams


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