A review by Nick Pearce
Wichita State University’s production of Smokey Joe’s Café (January 20th at 7:30 in the Ames Center Auditorium) was a bad musical. But that’s only because it’s simply a mistake for judging it as such. For what the show truly is, a rocking revue of R&B legends Lieber and Stoller’s greatest hits, it is excellent. Comprised of thirty nine of the 50’s hits, from novelty songs (Yakety Yak), romantically charged ballads (I Who Have Nothing), and songs so catchy that the entire auditorium was clapping along (Saved), a cast of music majors lit up the stage for over 2 hours. This performance was more concert than musical, featuring great performers and vocalists, wonderfully paired with legendary songs.
Performing the show was very simple: four of the men in the cast walked out, welcomed the audience, asked them to silence their phones (the only substantial dialogue the show contained), and then joined the full company, all dressed in stylish 1950’s period clothing, in the one song not from the 50’s (Neighborhood), a nostalgic piece that suggested a trip down memory lane. From there, the songs followed one right after the other, delivering over an hour of non-stop music that broke into intermission much too soon. Immediately following the break, the production was launched into another block of songs, which ended with an all cast rendition of Ben E King’s best (Stand by Me). Looking at the time at the end, it was hard to believe that it had been 130 minutes.
One of the few downsides of the night was the titular smoke; pumped onto the stage on both sides, the smoke gave an authentic aesthetic similar to a night club in the 50’s, but also had a distracting smell that caused headaches for some in the audience. Furthermore, the audience, moved to applaud several times in the middle of songs by amazing notes and dance moves, drowned out the performers, leaving them inaudible several times over the course of the show. The microphones never seemed to be turned up, despite these difficulties. However, this was nearly negated by the amazingly distracting visual performance given by the cast.
Amy Baker Schwiethale, who both directed and choreographed the show, had taught a cast with gifted physical presence dance moves from the time period, which were adapted and utilized with aplomb, turning several good songs into great performances. It’s always noticeable when performers truly love the work they put forward, this was evident in the entire cast. In particular, Naaman Williams, already sticking out for being nearly a head taller than the majority of the cast, drew the attention of the crowd for both his fantastic bass voice, superb dancing, and stage presence that was utterly enthralling.
A performance on a stage and scale such as this is often measured based on reactions after it has been performed. By this standard, the show undoubtedly inspired several hundred viewers to make new stations on Pandora and Spotify, shining a spotlight on the hits of the past that were presented with a standard that would make the original artists proud. Smokey Joe’s Cafe, more appropriately billed as a concert than a musical, was loudly and unapologetically exactly what it was: Not a musical, but a really good time.
Smokey Joe's Café presented by Wichita State University
Cast: Keshana Cook, Da ‘Merius Ford, Dylan Harris, Brittnee Hill, Amanda Huehl Phillips, Deiondre Teagle, Melvin Thampy, Madi White, Naaman Williams
Band: JuleAnn Troutman (piano), Jimmy Jensen (Sax), Andy Slater (drums), Dion Burton (bass), and Micah White (guitar)
Director/ Choreographer: Amy Baker Schwiethale
Assistant Director: Jennie Hughes
Musical Director: Phil Taylor.
Set and Production Stage Manager: David Neville
Costumes: Cate Wieck
Assistant Costumes Designer: Elizabeth Eckrote
Lights: Alyce Murphy
Sound: Marlo Griffith