Regional Reviews: Phoenix
While the song "Neighborhood" is used to somewhat frame the show as a scrapbook of memories, and the characters who live in the neighborhood represent those mentioned in several of the songs, Smokey Joe's Cafe really has no conventional plot. It does, however, let the songs themselves, and the talent of Leiber and Stoller, be the focus on display throughout the show. While the duo didn't invent rock and roll, they did create some of the most recognizable songs of the 1950s and '60s, and the show pays homage to the songwriters, the period, and the style of songs.
Under T.A. Burrow and Damon J. Bolling's skilled direction, Desert Foothills Theater's production features a cast of nine talented Valley performers, including three gifted youth performers who are about to graduate high school. All nine have good to very good voices which do justice to the varied styles of music in the show. The show includes plenty of solo songs along with dozens of group numbers, and the harmonies the nine singers deliver are simply lovely.
While everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine, here are a few of the highlights: Ali Whitwell's mesmerizing voice and powerful, soaring belt deliver in spades on her several solos, including "Don't," "I Keep Forgettin'" and "Pearl." Joshua Vern's deep voice provides a superb sound in numerous numbers. With the only recurring character in the show, Mason Reeves portrays a lost, drunken soul who sings the emotional "I (Who Have Nothing)." "Don Juan" receives an exceptional, sassy delivery from Jessica Freiling. Iesha Mills' heartfelt take on "Fools Fall in love" and her rendition of "Saved" are stellar. Skyler Washburn's early take on "Love Me" and Kim Cooper-Schmidt's sweet and soaring "Falling" are both lovely. "Loving You" and "Spanish Harlem" are sweetly sung by Michael Shulz, and Jack Lampert delivers a fun and upbeat version of "Jailhouse Rock." Reeves, Shulz, and Whitwell are the three high school seniors who have each delivered stellar performances in numerous shows across the Valley these past few years.
Dan Kurek's music direction is impressive, delivering a rich sound from the small orchestra and superb vocals from the cast. Burrow and Bolling's varied direction and the energetic choreography by Lynzee J. Foreman provide extremely striking segments. And not only does Foreman include many different styles of dance throughout, but her choreographed body gestures and movement in "Keep on Rolling" are perfect. David Weiss' scenic design is simple but clear, with a series of doors and flats to portray the "neighborhood," and the costumes by Tamara Treat are lovely, with many different styles of outfits that tie into the various songs.
While it may lack a lot in plot and character development, since there isn't much of either, Smokey Joe's Cafe is still a crowd pleaser due to the enormous popularity of the songs that Leiber and Stoller wrote. With a gifted cast, skilled direction, and some superb choreography, Desert Foothills Theater's production is a winner.
Smokey Joe's Cafe at Desert Foothills Theater runs through April 17th, 2016, at the Cactus Shadows Fine Art Center, 33606 N. 60th Street in Scottsdale. Tickets and information on upcoming shows can be found at www.desertfoothillstheater.org or by calling 480-488-1981.
Directed by T. A. Burrows and Damon J. Bolling