When it opened on Broadway in 1995, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” was a minor hit, running for more than 2,000 performances — the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. Based on the music and lyrics of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the show is a true revue, with no unifying plot or theme and only the smallest hint of recurring characters. However, the secret to its success was the music itself, drawing from the wellspring of songs created by Leiber and Stoller as they helped to invent rock ‘n’ roll along with performing artists such as the Coasters and Elvis Presley.
TexArts’ production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” embraces the disconnected nature of its source material, focusing on a great sound rather than a great story. Director/choreographer Kimberly Schafer certainly works hard to create a unity of characterization for each of the performers, but in the end the structure of the show — which features one song after the other, mostly without a thematic connection, and no dialogue — doesn’t allow for anything much beyond short skits for each individual song.
Fortunately, those skits are great fun, and Schafer’s diverse cast of potent vocalists create a rollicking good time. To be sure, the show will definitely resonate most strongly with those already familiar with many of the songs, thus skewing towards an older crowd, but the cast’s infectious energy and rich vocal talent imbue those songs with a modern vitality that can appeal to audiences of any age.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is, in a word, fun. Schafer knows this, and she lets her cast go wild with each song, emphasizing the goofiness of some (“Charlie Brown,” “Little Egypt”) and the emotive plaintiveness of others (“There Goes My Baby,” “I (Who Have Nothing)”), while creating an overall package that lets the songs speak for themselves without the contextualization of plot or character.
This is not a soul-searching story or intensive character study, by any stretch. Rather, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is ecstatically content with being precisely what it is — a good time.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through March 4
Where: Kam and James Morris Theatre, 2300 Lohman’s Spur