The first thing you notice about “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is the set. You can’t help it; there’s no curtain. Designed by Beowulf Boritt, a Tony winner with a long list of Broadway credits, it’s a barroom somewhere in a city, with walls of dark wood and brick. Shelves behind the bar are filled with gleaming bottles. Tall windows are topped by curved arches. Three metal staircases spiral up to a second level. All around are neon beer signs.
And radios everywhere. Big wooden cabinet radios. Medium-sized counter radios. Small radios. Radios lining walls and shelves, tucked into alcoves and corners.
People around us exclaimed about the set as we took our seats at the Ordway Wednesday night. A man paged through the program and said, “There sure are a lot of songs in this play.” Forty, in fact. And no dialogue or plot. “Smokey Joe’s” is a musical revue, 90 minutes of rock & roll, R&B and pop songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, with dancing and costume changes, occasional splits and flips in the air. There’s a lot of action but no talking. The songs are presented, one after another, as solos, duets, quartets, or sometimes the whole cast of nine. It’s a visual playlist.
You probably know some of the songs in “Smokey Joe’s,” even if you weren’t around when Leiber and Stroller wrote “Kansas City” (1952) or “Hound Dog” (1953), “Poison Ivy” (1958), “Love Potion No. 9” (1959), “Stand by Me” (1961) or “On Broadway” (1963). Their songs were hits for stars like Elvis Presley, Ben E. King, “Big Mama” Thornton, Peggy Lee and the Coasters.
Many entered the culture and stayed there. Decades after Lieber and Stoller hit their peak in the 1950s and ‘60s (they worked together for 60 years), “Smokey Joe’s” opened on Broadway and ran for 2,036 performances, still a record for a musical revue. The original Broadway cast recording won a Grammy in 1997.
In July 2018, an off-Broadway revival opened and ran for six months. Emmy winner and Tony nominee Joshua Bergasse was the director and choreographer. The Ordway’s producing artistic director, Rod Kaats, went to see it. And now it’s here, with Bergasse once more running the show.
Enough changes were made to the latest “Smokey Joe’s” that the Ordway can call it an Ordway Original. The cast is all locals except for Shavey Brown, whose subterranean voice is a standout. The music director is local legend Sanford Moore, who plays keys and leads a band of local musicians, including Jay Young on bass.
It’s an evening full of highs. Dwight Leslie’s athletic take on “Jailhouse Rock.” The whole cast on “Yakety Yak.” Rajané Katurah in the lead on “Hound Dog” (a hit for “Big Mama” Thornton before Elvis recorded it). The tender “Spanish Harlem” between China Brickey and Dwight Leslie. Doo-wop and dancing by Shavey Brown, Kevin Brown Jr., Dwight Leslie and Rendell DeBose. Emily Scinto’s beautiful voice on everything she sings.
Ben Bakken singing and playing guitar on “Ruby Baby.” Jorie Ann Kosel’s hot take on “Trouble.” DeBose’s exuberant playfulness. Kevin Brown Jr.’s heroic “I Who Have Nothing.” Rajané’s powerful “Fools Fall in Love Reprise,” a reason all by itself to see this show. “Stand by Me,” a song that can’t go wrong, performed with heart and soul by the whole company. All framed by that wonderful set.
What wasn’t so great was the sound. Sometimes the band buried the singing. But it’s still very early in the run and they can fix that.
Another not-so-great thing is the problematic nature of certain songs. If opera companies can tweak misogynist Mozart masterpieces to make them more palatable today, theater directors can take another look at outdated songs. It sounds strange in 2019 to hear four women sing “I can wash out forty four pairs of socks and have ’em hangin’ out on the line/I can starch and iron two dozen shirts ’fore you can count from one to nine … ’Cause I’m a woman! W-O-M-A-N.”
Maybe not change the songs themselves – there are laws against that – but the way they’re sung and presented. With irony? Humor?
“Smokey Joe’s Café” continues at the Ordway in the music theater through Sept. 22. FMI and tickets ($49-70).
The Minnesota Orchestra has canceled its Symphony in the Cities concert at Lake Harriet Bandshell, originally set for tonight (Friday, Sept. 13). But you’re welcome to attend a season sampler performance at Orchestra Hall on Saturday, Sept. 14, at 8 p.m. Reserve tickets for free online or by phone (612-371-5656) using the promo code 1920SAMPLESAT. Subject to availability.
Opens tonight at the Summit Center for Arts and Innovation: Regina Taylor’s “Crowns.” There’s a new theater company in town, New Dawn, founded by a formidable group of women: Austene Van, Regina Marie Williams, Thomasina Petrus, Aimee K. Bryant, Faye Price, Laura Esping, Kate Guentzel and Salima Seale. As in, whoa. Their first full production is Taylor’s Helen Hayes Award-winning coming-of-age musical, told in a mix of hip-hop and spoken word, gospel, R&B, blues and jazz. The cast includes Jevetta Steele, Jamecia Bennett, Petrus, Bryant and T. Mychael Rambo. Van is the director, and Sanford Moore the music director. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($35/20). Closes Oct. 6.
Tonight at Walker|West: Rondo Community Music Series: Ashley DuBose. With this concert, Walker West Music Academy, recently rebranded as Walker|West, launches a free, community-focused music series exploring the past, present and future of music in the Central Selby Corridor. Raised in St. Paul’s West Side, DuBose gained fame beyond her hometown when she appeared in Season 5 of “The Voice.” She has released two albums to date, “Somethin’ More” (2012) and “Be You” (2015) with its breakout single “Intoxicated.” Doors at 7 p.m., show at 7:30. Free. RSVP by calling 651-224-2929. The series continues Oct. 26 with “Twin Cities All Star Tribute to Roy Hargrove,” Nov. 16 with “From R&B to Gospel,” and Dec. 7 with De’Sean Jones.
Opens tonight at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Based on the best-selling book by Mark Haddon, the Tony-winning play that toured to the Orpheum in 2016 will make its Yellow Tree debut. The cast includes Laura Esping, Stacia Rice and Zach Schnitzer as Christopher, who is often described as being autistic. But Haddon doesn’t use that language and neither does Yellow Tree. This play launches Yellow Tree’s 12th season. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($26-30). Closes Oct. 13.
Saturday in St. Paul: Selby Avenue JazzFest. This popular annual event was founded by Golden Thyme Coffee Café owner and Selby community activist Mychael Wright, partly in response to 9/11. Now in its 18th year, JazzFest continues with a line-up that includes headliner Goapele (whose song “Closer” has been streamed more than 13 million times on Spotify), Patricia Lacy (Sounds of Blackness), Bossa Soul, Brio Brass, the Jazz Standards and the Selby Avenue Brass Band. There will be food, a marketplace, a Family Fun Zone and a Health and Wellness Village. On Selby Avenue at Milton St. N. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. FMI. Free.
Saturday and Sunday at Swede Hollow Park: Sod House Theater and Black Label Movement: “Swede Hollow Ghost Sonata.” A guided theatrical promenade through the park, where vignettes using theater, dance, movement, and original music will explore the continuing histories of immigration to St. Paul’s Swede Hollow neighborhood. Sod House and BLM used Strindberg’s play “The Ghost Sonata” as a starting point for recreating a lost world and sharing tales that resonate with the present day. The list of names associated with this Knight Foundation-funded project includes Luverne Seifert, Sarah Agnew and Nathan Keepers. 6 p.m. More performances on Sept. 21 and 22, 28 and 29. Free. FMI and reservation link. Scroll down to learn about related community events, including a pre-show walking history tour of the park on Sept. 21.
Sunday at Harriet Island Regional Park: 8th Annual Twin Cities Veg Fest. Someday we’ll all be vegetarians. More than 10,000 eaters of all kinds are expected at the Midwest’s largest plant-based festival. Come for the cooking demos, free samples, live music and more than 100 vendors. Honest, going meatless isn’t that hard and it can be delicious. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. FMI. Free.