OGDEN — Most people have never heard of the composing team Lieber and Stoller. In fact, Jim Christian, the director and choreographer of Weber State University’s most recent offering, Smokey Joe’s Café, addresses this gap in American music knowledge in his director notes, saying, “The writing team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller may not have the same name recognition for musical theatre audiences as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, but their contributions to the American Songbook have filled more jukeboxes, radios, elevators, playlists, movie scores and Las Vegas celebrations than most people would imagine.” Once the band starts playing, heads start nodding and smiles spread across many faces as the audience recognizes many iconic tunes from the ’50s, ’60s, and beyond.
Weber State University has taken a lesser known musical revue and served up a treat with Smokey Joe’s Café. All the musical elements come together to create a fun filled, toe-tapping, hum-along event that will appeal to most audiences. In the theater with me were audience members of all ages, from young children to the older generation who would actually have listened to these songs on the radio at the height of their popularity. As I remarked on the diversity of ages and backgrounds in the audience, and the fact that this revue seemed to be a “safe” choice for a wide range of ages, my husband laughed and reminded me that during their hey-day, many of these songs were actually considered suspect, evil, and detrimental to the wholesome youth of past decades. How times have changed!
The production team worked well together to create a visually beautiful production. When I first entered the theatre, a huge neon sign hung center stage, emblazoning the show’s name. The background ambient soundtrack communicated that the setting was a small roadside bar, and included the sounds of highway traffic going by and the faint strains of Buddy Holly and others on a scratchy jukebox. Scenic designer Van Tinkham created a versatile set that is flexible and able to adapt to the needs the show. A metal staircase unit with levels and ladders opens and closes the show, while in the background, the silhouettes of a highway underpass, windows and rooflines play well with the saturated colors of Hayden Wadsworth’s lighting design. Projection screens fly in and out at various times to provide the backdrop for nostalgic slides and pictures from the time period to great effect. Projection designer Alex Thedell created some beautiful, fun, and occasionally poignant, slide shows to accompany several of the songs. Costume designer Erin Carignan rounded out the design team with some fun fashions for the women that reminded me a bit of Mad Men and Bye Bye, Birdie.
The musical accompaniment was provided by an onstage band, led by music director Brad Veith, who set the rock ‘n’ roll tone of the show. The musicians were having such a great time on stage that it was fun just to watch them. All this is to say that the production team outdid themselves in providing the setting to showcase the talents of the ten performers onstage. These five men and five women worked their talents hard to entertain an appreciative audience. Because the cast was so small, I feel that they all deserve to be mentioned by name: the men were Jason Baldwin, Juston LeBaron, Riley French, Colton Ward, and Matt Baxter (the latter of whom perfectly executed every one of his songs). The women were Ashley Loewer (whom I will remember mostly for one particular dress and her prowess at shimmying), Shawnee Johnson, Emily Wells, Kassie Winkler, and stand-out Aalliyah Jenks with her flawless performance and captivating stage presence. The entire cast is strong, and given that they sing 40 songs from the Lieber and Stoller catalogue almost non-stop, possessed of extremely impressive vocal chops. I commend Bradley Veith for putting together these great voices. The strength of Smokey Joe’s Café lies in the tight harmonies and impressive solo work alike.
Christian has staged a fun sequence of songs that flows seamlessly from one to the next. Some memorable numbers were “Keep On Rollin” (where the men accompany themselves on suitcases), “Love Me/Don’t,” “Poison Ivy,” a clever dancing mannequin number called “Shopping For Clothes,” and the act one finale entitled “Saved,” featuring Jenks. Act Two favorites were “You’re the Boss,” “I’m a Woman,” and “Jailhouse Rock” (yes, THAT “Jailhouse Rock”). Act Two felt a bit long, but just when I was starting to look at my watch, Winkler hit me with a power ballad called “I (Who Have Nothing)” that knocked my socks off. Not many people have the stage presence to stand absolutely still and belt their guts out in an emotional declaration of unrequited love. Winkler nailed this one. Nostalgic favorite “Stand By Me” was the show closer, providing a strong ending to a terrific show.
Weber state offers up an evening of fun entertainment. Their cast is solid, the music is classic. It is well worth the time and money to catch Smokey Joe’s Café if possible. The smallish audience was very loud in their appreciation of this show, but the cast and crew deserve a full house every night. Go. You won’t be disappointed.