I hadn’t been to The Ordway in St. Paul for several years until this last summer when I saw their production of 42nd Street. I only went to that because local favorite Tyler Michaels King was in the cast. After today’s performance of Smokey Joe’s Cafe I feel confident in saying that The Ordway specializes in putting on first class productions for small audiences. I saw 42nd Street on a Saturday night and Smokey Joe’s Cafe a Saturday matinee. Both seemed woefully under attended. I’m not sure if I just hit the wrong performances or if that is the norm. If it is the norm, based on the two performances I saw I’m at a loss to understand why. I guess I’ll find out as I’m a season ticket holder this year. One last thought on The Ordway as a venue, they are the first theater that has ever had the bathrooms right. Maybe it was the low number of patrons, but it seemed to this audience member that there were plenty of urinals and stalls. If you’ve ever been to the theater and needed to use the restroom at intermission, you’ll appreciate this aspect of The Ordway.
The ship has sailed on on 42nd Street and if you missed it, you missed some really impressive footwork. But Smokey Joe’s Cafe runs through Sept 22nd, so let’s talk about it. The show is the songs of songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. And that is exactly what it is. There is no story. This isn’t Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, where you have a bio-play about her life filled with the songs she wrote. Nor is it a Mama Mia, where they tell a story using the songs of ABBA. This is nine performers, almost all of them local talent, singing and dancing the songs of Leiber and Stoller. So if you like a plot or a story with your musicals you are out of luck with Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Now many of the songs tell a little story of their own, as if they are music videos, so it isn’t just actors singing or doing dance choreography. Each song is performed by some combination of these 9 performers, occasionally solo’s,but most are performed with multiple members of the cast and several utilize the entire cast.
The show contains 36 songs, one leading right into another. They include such timeless classics as Stand By Me, Jailhouse Rock, Yakety Yak, There Goes My Baby, Hound Dog, Love Potion #9 and On Broadway. I could list 29 more titles but you can google that if you really want to know. The truth is if I listed the rest, chances are you’d think you know about 8 of the other titles, and you’d really only know 5. This show is wall to wall songs, most of which sound familiar, but that’s probably because they either inspired a more well known song or are emulating a more well known song. I spent probably 1/2 of my radio listening time in Jr. High and high school listening to the oldies channel, which at that time was 50’s and 60’s and just starting to creep into the early 70’s. If you are in your 60’s you may remember more of these songs, but if you are late 40’s and younger unless you’ve spent 75% of your radio time on the oldies, or for some reason a follower of these songwriter’s specifically you’re going to top out at about 15, that’s where I landed. The first song I’d heard before was the 10th one in the show, Kansas City. The good news is, just because you don’t know them doesn’t mean you wont like them. There are songs that must have been just on the cusp of joining the collective memory the way that Stand By Me has. A lot of the songs feel like the B sides of number 1 hits, good enough to have been a hit but overshadowed by the greatness on the flip-side.
Should you see the show? Absolutely!!! They are not the greatest songs ever recorded in rock and roll history, but there isn’t a bad song in the playlist. Besides the star of this show, isn’t the songs, sorry Leiber and Stoller, it’s the cast. I’d like to single out the most exceptional members of this cast, but I can’t, they are all fantastic! This is an incredible assemblage on talent. When they are singing, you do not care that you don’t know the song they are singing, it doesn’t matter, you are wowed by their talent and their stage presence. I mentioned that while there is no linking story elements most of the songs do tell a little story, through the staging or performances. The cast makes every song enjoyable beyond just what they do with their voices, Mostly via humor or their footwork. Joshua Bergasse who directed and choreographed the show has really done an amazing job of giving each song it’s own flavor and identity, brilliantly coaxing humor out where appropriate and just plan coolness in every moment. Hats off as well to the scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt and lighting design by Jeff Croiter, I took a photo of the set but am not sure if it is appropriate to post. If anyone can give me an answer to that I’d love to share it, as it bowled me over from the moment we entered the theater.