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[whitespace] Kyra Da Cost
Photograph by David Allen

Stretching Act: Kyra Da Cost works out on Leiber and Stoller's 'Don Juan.'

Golden Oldies

'Smokey Joe's Cafe' stands out in the crowd of musical revues

By Heather Zimmerman

SEX SELLS, but it just might have nothing on nostalgia for really moving the goods. And that's what TheatreWorks does, in every sense, with its season-opening production, Smokey Joe's Cafe. The '50s and '60s rock & roll musical revue, which celebrates the songs of composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, is a sure crowd pleaser--Leiber and Stoller penned every oldies favorite from "Jailhouse Rock" to "Stand by Me"--but fortunately, this revved-up stroll down memory lane displays far more personality and intelligence than the average hit-parade retread.

Smokey Joe's Cafe fares better than plainly contrived showcases of well-loved tunes (like its Broadway compatriot Crazy for You) by framing its popular repertoire within a much looser structure; that way, the show stays focused on the music rather than on any attempt to cram the songs together into a cohesive plot. Instead, a coming-of-age tale subtly emerges from the careful order of songs uninterrupted by dialogue, taking the nine ensemble cast members from awkward first love to grown-up heartbreak and beyond. In fact, the revue matures along with its sketchily drawn collection of characters--and grows more interesting as it does. After all, an earnest teen love ballad like "Falling" lacks the oomph of a worldly-wise number like "You're the Boss."

Perhaps that's why the female cast members generally don't get as much of a chance to shine until midway through the first act--their initial songs pale next to dynamic men's numbers (like "Ruby Baby" and "Searchin'"), in part because the choreography keeps most every movement Sandra Dee-demure, that is, up until the mood-shifting, S&M-tinged tease of "Trouble."

Of course, the women's sentimental ballads at the start of the first act don't really lend themselves to much beyond coy poses, and once there's the faintest whiff of female rebellion in the tunes, the shrinking violets disappear altogether--a good thing, too, because these gifted performers should be shown off. A particular highlight is Kyra Da Costa's creation of a character in two songs, conjuring a purring vamp from the cabaret-style "Don Juan" and "Some Cats Know." As the production gathers momentum, director/choreographer Linda Goodrich really makes the most of her cast's talent, with raucous, high-energy choreography that nevertheless takes the time to employ humorous touches, such as a surprisingly effective simulation of the sinister creeping of "Poison Ivy."

The show's timeline moves into the '60s in the second act (the songs do not appear chronologically, so the dance moves and costumes suggest the era), and the production becomes more energized. Jennifer Allen almost too-convincingly tackles the frenetic Janis Joplin tribute "Pearl's a Singer." Of course, when it comes to the tunes of the King, the cast has probably the biggest shoes to fill--a challenge these performers meet in various but equally effective ways. In "Treat Me Nice," Bobby Daye offers a more than credible take on Elvis' vocal style while C. Kelly Wright belts out a bluesy rendition of "Hound Dog." "Jailhouse Rock" offers the high-kicks-and-iron-bars dance spectacular that one can't help but expect. However, even when Smokey Joe's Cafe veers into the expected familiar territory, the show seems more like a musical appreciation of Leiber and Stoller than just a revue, because in celebrating some '50s and '60s standards, the show happily rises above what's standard.

Smokey Joe's Cafe plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm (except July 4), Sunday at 2 and 7pm through July 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$45. (650.903.6000)

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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