Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Smokey Joe's Cafe
Desert Foothills Theater
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The All Night Strut, Wonderland Wives, Of Mice and Men, 42nd Street, and Twelfth Night

(back row) Joshua Vern, Jack Lambert, Mason Reeves, Skyler Washburn, and Michael Shulz; (front row) Ali Whitwell, Iesha Mills, Kim Cooper-Schmidt, and Jessica Freiling
Photo by Tiffany Bolock / Desert Foothills Theater
The songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composed many hit songs in the 1950s and 1960s. Their songs crossed music styles from pop, to rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. Some of their well-known tunes include "Hound Dog," "Love Potion #9," "On Broadway" and "Stand by Me." Desert Foothills Theatre presents a solid production of the 1995 musical revue Smokey Joe's Cafe which features over three dozen Leiber and Stoller tunes. While it is a revue short on plot and character development, it is high on energy due to this production's talented cast.

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 or by calling 480-488-1981.

Directed by T. A. Burrows and Damon J. Bolling
Music Director: Dan Kurek
Choreographer: Lynzee J. Foreman
Stage Manager: Ruthanne Smith
Scenic Designer: David Weiss
Lighting Design: Wes Sullivan
Costume Design: Tamara Treat
Sound Design: Peter Bish
Hair and Make-Up Design: Trey DeGroodt

Mason Reeves
Ali Whitwell
Joshua Vern
Kim Cooper-Schmidt
Jack Lambert
Jessica Freiling
Skyler Washburn
Iesha Mills
Michael Shulz

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