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The Arts
April 18-24, 2007

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'Smokey Joe's Cafe'

Photograph by David Allen
Hey, Joe's: Dana Dawson sings 'Don Juan' for 'Smokey Joe's Cafe.'

Cafe Society

AMTSJ takes maximum advantage of Leiber and Stoller songbook in 'Smokey Joe's Cafe'

By Marianne Messina

MANY'S the Broadway producer who failed to put the myriad hit songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller under one musical plot. Smokey Joe's Cafe, the show that finally put all the music together, earning a Grammy and seven Tony nominations, tossed out the plot idea altogether. In the resulting musical revue, the nine-member cast of triple threats from American Musical Theatre San Jose takes us through the songs on sets that suggest a schoolroom, a neighborhood, a sock hop and a stage within a stage. In the absence of story, the show doesn't take hold right away. But it helps to keep in mind that every song among the 41 diverse numbers—"Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Kansas City," "Love Potion Number 9"—is a product of the ingenious Leiber/Stoller collaboration.

Eventually, the show develops a winsome personality brought out by the cast of talents. Dana Dawson, hugged tightly by a dazzling green, leg-showcasing formal (lovely costuming by Marina Agabekov), serves as the visual embodiment of "Poison Ivy." As singers Erwin G. Urbi, Leonard E. Sullivan, Delious T. Kennedy (of the "boy band" All-4-One) and James Monroe Iglehart croon and ogle Ms. Ivy, they also itch and scratch with amusing body movements (Josh Bergasse, choreography).

By the show's second half, as Gayle Turner pours out her steamy, cynical ode to "Fools [who] Fall in Love," she has the audience eating out of her fingers. "Shake the hand of a brand new fool," she laments in a belt-out finish. Though many Stoller and Leiber songs are remembered by their rock & roll versions, the duo often wrote them as gritty blues arrangements with various black performers in mind.

At this performance, the band's straight-ahead style didn't always give songs the bluesy breathing room they needed (not to mention that the voices seemed to lose their bass-end at the sound board). Yet superb singing shines through as singers take the songs back to their original arrangements, most notably the famous Elvis cover, "Hound Dog." Recollecting the female-centric Big Mama Thornton blues version that predated Elvis' "Hound Dog," Gayle Turner turns the song on its bad behind. With couples sitting paired off at the tables of Smokey Joe's Cafe, Turner responds to her good-for-nothing "Don Juan" beau by calling him out in "Hound Dog"'s slow grind. If you only know the Elvis version, be prepared for a song with tons more teeth: "You ain't lookin' for a woman/ You're just lookin' for a home/ ... I ain't gonna feed you no more."

In fact, crisp lyrical delivery all around reveals Leiber and Stoller's relish for the nasty double entendre designed to fan sexual heat right by the censors of the day. Singing "Some Cats Know" ("how to make the honey flow"—no, you don't have a dirty mind; it's there), Dana Dawson, in another dazzling, form-fitting evening gown, adds slow, easy hip action and lulling expressive hands, smooth as jazz, to the raunchiest lyrics a "Who, me?" smile was ever set to.

In addition to some exceptional duets, strong ensemble numbers include a saucy "I Am Woman," sung with big attitude and wagging shoulders by the ladies (Turner, Dawson, Gayle Holsman and Denise Summerford), and "On Broadway," from the men in their sparkling, black-trimmed, honeybee-yellow jackets. Their energetic ensemble dance during the "On Broadway" piano break brought rousing applause from the crowd. The show leaves you in love with the cast and in awe of the two songwriters, who at the age of 16 or 17 started penning hits with so much range and soul.

Smokey Joe's Cafe, an American Musical Theatre San Jose production, plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 1 and 6:30pm through April 22 at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $13.75-$75. (408.453.7108)

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