I’ve Seen the Future and it’s Miranda Shaughnessy. Starring in Minnesota Dance Collaborative Production HoliDaydream at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Miranda Shaughnessy Photo by Dan Norman

Minnesota Dance Collaborative’s presentation of HoliDaydream is in residence at The Southern Theater in Seven Corners area of Minneapolis. I spent close to a dozen hours at the Southern this fall at the Twin Cities Horror Festival. It’s a very atmospheric theater perfect for horror plays and, as it turns out, Christmas dance fantasy’s as well. The performance space is broad and deep allowing the dancers plenty of room, and this company makes excellent use of it. I’ve written before about the joy of exploring new forms of theatrics, out of my comfort zone, such as Opera and Dance. HoliDaydream is primarily a dance piece but it has dialogue and some singing as well. It’s something of a special show. When I was told about it, I immediately thought of the great Richard Linklater film Boyhood. This is the sixth year that they have done a variation on this show. The main character Marie has been played all six years my Miranda Shaughnessy. She first played the role when she was age 10 and is now 16. Every year the show follows her through another Christmas, her character another year older. Referencing previous years, just enough to hint at the continuity for the repeat audiences but not so much to make you feel like you came too late to the show if you are a newcomer like me. I love this idea, and I do grieve the fact that I cannot attend the previous five years performances.

The story begins as I suspect each year has with Marie writing a letter to Santa. This year at 16 she is thinking less about all the “things” she wants and more about what is really important, like Bernie in the White House. Then she suddenly has a vision of herself in the future and she is down and depressed and it seems like she has ruined Christmas for everyone. The rest of the show Marie and her friends search the past for clues as to how or why she has ruined Christmas. This is where they reference the previous years adventures and based on those hints, there have been some really interesting themes explored in past years. The story elements lend themselves to dance sequences, first off they are dancers, so they go to a dance studio. But there are also dreams and conversations with people inside Marie’s head, which flow smoothly into dances. The show is filled with dancing, more on that below, but it’s also populated with a wonderful assortment of characters including the Dance studio headmistress and Marie’s Mom, both played with gusto and humor by the Writer and Artistic Director Shelli Manzoline, who created this idea of revisiting Marie every year.

The dancing. I cannot do justice to the beauty of the dancing with the words at my disposal. I don’t want to turn anyone off with all the dance talk. It doesn’t matter who you are, you will be amazed and entertained by this dancing. This is not boring or inaccessible at all. It’s incredibly entertaining and engaging. Minnesota Dance Collaborative doesn’t focus on merely one style of dance, they do everything from ballet to hip-hop. Like previous dance performance I’ve seen, I was amazed at the synchronization and sheer athleticism involved. The first dance number “Back in Time” showcased the precision of the entire company, 14 dancers all moving together quickly and flawlessly. “The Nutcracker Battle Compilation” telling a story solely in movement, expressing not only actions but also emotions with their entire bodies. I even got a few callbacks to earlier in this first season of reviewing shows. The first was a number called “Christmas Calamity” and it’s a parody of “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, which I reviewed the Theater Latte Da production of. This is one of the few songs in which the dancers actually sing and they all did nice vocal work as well. Second was “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Show, which was done at Park Square this fall. There was even a mention of not saying the “M” word in a theater, referencing of course MacBeth which I saw the Wayward Theatre Company mount as well this fall. Heck, they even mention Fargo ND which is where I grew up! So while Marie was having her trip down memory lane it felt like I was as well. It’s hard to single any of the dancers out as the program does not have picture and bios, but they are all very talented. One Dancer I spoke with briefly after the show was Grace Sjolander who plays Marie’s sister Lucy. Sjolander has been dancing in competition throughout her life and it shows in the precision she brings to here dancing. There are only two male dancers Lawson Sharrer and Cade Kaiser, both of them in the 14 to 16 year old age range I’d guess, both had the dance steps down, both did some fun line readings. Lawson sharrer has that little extra that could develop into something special, he had that little added bit of grace in his dancing and the ability to sell everything with his face.

Speaking of Something extra, earlier this year I reviewed a show at the Minnsky Theatre. In that review I singled out one dancer. In fact, I was so taken with her dancing and performance that I tracked someone from the cast down after the show to get her name so I could mention her specifically. Her Name is Miranda Shaughnessy and she’s a smasher! There is a line from the film Sunset Boulevard, where a retired film star talks about her days in silent films. Norma Desmond says “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”. Shaughnessy has the face and the gift of a great silent film actress. Do not mistake me, she can act with dialogue and I’m not referencing the inaccurate cliche of the overacting silent performer. She has the gift of conveying so much with her face that dialogue is superfluous. Equally effective with drama and comedy. She has the same talent in her dancing, watching her move you are never at a loss to know what her character is feeling. Watching her dance is to understand the beauty of movement. Watching her face is to understand the joy of dancing. One of the joys of seeing as much theater as I do is running across talents like this. I have a small list of local performers that I will make it a point to see everything they are in. Miranda Shaughnessy is now on that list. At sixteen years old she is six years into playing the lead in an annual Holiday production. Of the 13 dance numbers in the show she either choreographed or co-choreographed five of them. There will come a time when this talent will head to New York or LA, but she told me after the show she would want to come back at this time of year to continue her journey as Marie. I hope she’s able to do that. Not many actors get the opportunity to own a role like this, to revisit a character yearly, in a new show with the character aging with them. That’s a rare thing in the world, and it’s something I think she should continue as long as she can. I’m not sure once she goes out into the larger world how long that will be, because she’s going to be big.

HoliDaydream runs at the Southern Theater through December 22nd for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.southerntheater.org/

Six at the Ordway in St. Paul.

Photo by Liz Lauren

The Ordway Center For the Performing Arts is better venue for seeing Broadway shows than The Orpheum in Minneapolis. The acoustics are better, the Seats are more comfortable and have more leg room. But for reasons besides enjoyment and comfort of the audience, most of the big Broadway tours go to the Orpheum. Six is taking a different route, usually the shows play on Broadway and then a touring company is mounted and four times out of five, that tour goes to the Orpheum. For the first time in the Ordway’s 34 year history a show, Six, is going from the Ordway to Broadway. So not only is Six a show about History it is a show that is making history. I urge everyone to take advantage of this Phenomenal show in the comfort of the Ordway, and be a part of history.

Six refers to the six wives of Henry VIII. The six wives tell their stories in song as a singing competition. The audience will be the judge of who had the worst time being married to Henry. It’s essentially a pop concert filled with history and the humor and joy you expect from a fun musical. The show runs about 85 minutes with no intermission. But what it lacks in intermission it makes up for in kick ass music! Each of the queens songs were modeled on a couple of different pop singers the likes of Beyonce, Avril Lavigne, Adele, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears and Alicia Keys among them. The costumes also take their cue from the vocal inspirations. That said the songs are all original and great, any of them could be on the pop charts. Besides being great musically, they are also filled with clever writing. From the chorus of the final song “Six” where it counts up to six but uses different meanings for the numbers and other plays on words like “Too Many Years Lost in HIStory”. The entire show is filled with top notch music and lyrics by the cocreators Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss.

The set is simple, basically a set of steps in the background, places for the band members and a background framework that lights up in different ways. Simple, but very effective. In a scene where they are describing how Henry is picking his next wife it’s like he is using a life sized tinder app, swiping left to reject, the performer goes to the left and the frame she is in front of goes red. In another scene those boxes are lit to represent church windows with a cross lighting up in the center. There are lights and metallic confetti, it feels like a Pop concert, but one filled with history and all number one songs. I’ve been listening to the music for awhile now and every single song has earned a place in my heart. The cast are the Six queens, we had two understudies performing at the show I saw and they were great, so don’t worry about it if a performer is understudied, you are still getting a great show. The cast is brilliant, what can you say, when they are all so good, singling one out seems like a slight on the others. So here are all six performers I saw and their roles: Nicole Kyoung -Mi as Anna of Cleves, Mallory Maedke as Jane Seymour, Adrianna Hicks as Catherine of Aragon, Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn, Samantha Pauly as Katherine Howard, and Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr. They each create a unique character which shines a light on these individual women who have been relegated to the six wives of Henry VIII. There are 4 band members as well on stage and they as well are all female, and they sound like a super tight pop group, this is just a stellar group of songs.

Besides providing us with great entertainment the show also draws attention through our modern eyes to the inequality that women lived under in those days. It attempts to reclaim these women not as a collective group but as the individuals they were. Reminding us that it’s demeaning and dismissive to reference them simply as a group. They were real people, they were more than just wife 1,2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. It points out that when we reference them in that way we are complicit in reinforcing the attitude of the patriarchal society that men mattered, and women’s value was in relationship to men. Unfortunately this is not a completely obsolete view even in 2019. Like Hamilton, Six uses our modern perspective and music to illuminate the past, making it fresh and relevant again. This is a highlight of the 2019 theater scene in the Twin Cities. I expect it will take Broadway by storm in 2020. I urge you to take advantage of this rare opportunity to see Six now, before it even makes it to Broadway. Aside from anyone who loves musical theater, this is a great show to take daughters too, it is very empowering and may educate them on people they have not been exposed to yet.

Six plays through Dec 22nd for more information and to purchase tickets visit https://ordway.org/.

The Band Visits the Orpheum in Downtown Minneapolis

The Band's Visit, 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical; A woman smiling among officer musicians

The Band’s Visit Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek and Book by Itamar Moses is a musical adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name written and directed by Eran Kolirin. I saw the film shortly after it hit video over a decade ago, much of the details are gone from my memory but I remember it being a small intimate film, about characters and their interactions. The musical adaptation has a similar feel. This is not a show filled with crowd pleasing dance breaks or large chorus numbers. It’s a quiet piece, many of the songs are about the characters inner lives, memories, philosophies and dreams. Many of the band members play their own instruments, as evidenced by the show they put on after the bows have been taken. I encourage you to stick around, it’s well worth it. Now on my night there were three understudies who performed including James Rana filling in for the lead male role of Tewfiq. Obviously, when you go to a show you hope to see the main cast, but things happen and while I can’t compare the cast I can say that the understudies did a great job.

The plot is simple the The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited to come to Israel to play. Due to the accent of one of the band members they get on a bus going to Bet Hatikva a small town in the middle of the desert instead of Petah Tikvah where the cultural center is located. There’s not a bus until the next day so a local restaurant owner, her staff, and friends take in the band for the night. We follow the bands leader Tewfiq who spends the evening with Dina the restaurant owner. Haled, the band member whose accent has caused the wrong bus tickets to be purchased accompanies Papi one of the Cafe workers as a fifth wheel on a double date. Itzik, who was at the cafe when the band turns up, takes in another band member, Simon. This last band member we follow is thrown in with Itzik’s young child, Father-in-law and fed up wife. The ways in which each of these three group spends their time together is where the heart of it is. It’s a story about finding connections and understanding despite our differences. I think it really speaks to the universality of the human condition.

My favorite song was Omar Sharif, which is referencing one of the ways in which Dina and Tewfiq connected over their mutual love for traditional Arab music and movie quotes. It refers to a exchange of quotes from an Omar Sharif film. Aside from their personal connection for the characters it draws upon the history of film as a universal artform. It’s a well placed detail that helps accomplish the plays intent. Getting across to a large group of people, in a show that runs a mere 90 minutes, and switches between three main threads and a couple of minor threads as well, that revolve around a pay phone, anything subtle is kind of amazing. But that is exactly what The Band’s Visit does. It has a nice blend of humor running throughout but it’s the intimate connections and small scale interactions that make this a very special show. I was in my usual seats in the balcony, and I could pick up on the subtleties in the performances and the script. But if ever there was a show to upgrade to be within the first dozen rows, it’s this one. There are humorous songs like “Waiting” and “Nowhere” and “Papi Hears the Ocean”, and also beautiful songs like “Omar Sharif “, which has a lyrical aspect in music and lyrics. Then there are “Haled’s Song About Love” and “Something different” which blend both in places, while also bearing Dina’s hopes and desires.

The star of the show is Chilina Kennedy as Dina, she gets the most beautiful songs to sing. Her character is also complex, strong and in charge but also a little self destructive. Kennedy plays all aspects of the role with equal skill, whether it be humor, melancholy, regret, desire, nostalgia, jealous, or generous. The other star of the show is the set design by Scott Pask. It effortlessly transforms from a bus station into small desert city street then to an apartment or a roller skating rink. Tyler Micoleau did some really interesting effects with the lighting design. There were two scenes in particular that used really effective use of silhouettes of the characters, that added to the mood of the scenes. It’s easy to see why Plak was nominated for a Tony award and why Micoleau won a Tony for the lighting design. In fact, the show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 10. Which is kind of amazing for a show that is small and intimate in a lot of ways.

The Band’s Visit is playing through Sunday December 15th at the Orpheum theatre in downtown Minneapolis for more information about the show or to purchase tickets please visit https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/the-bands-visit-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2019/. Take my advice get as close up as you can, it’s worth the extra money. The Band’s Visit us a beautiful musical that succeeds by doing the opposite of other musicals instead of going big it goes small and in doing so it draws us in deeper into the inner lives of it’s characters.

How the Grinch Stole XXXMas at Minnsky Theatre in NE Minneapolis.

Tifd Ynamite and Mimi Clochette photo by Upper Boundary Photography

OK, I feel like I’ve finally seen a typical Minnsky theatre production now. What I’ve learned is there is nothing typical about a Minnsky theatre production. I’m three shows into my Minnsky experience I can tell you this much: it could contain amazing singing or lip synching, a beautiful dance routine or striptease, it might have funny smart dialogue or the performers might seem lost on stage, there maybe acts of acrobatic wonder performed on poles, hoops, and giant swings or someone might fall off of a black box. More than likely it will contain some combination of all of these. In short a production at the Minnsky is something of a wild card. I guess you could say a show at the Minnsky is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. How the Grinch Stole XXXMas is no different. To be blunt, it’s a bit of a hot mess. The only thing wrong with describing it as such, is that you might think that’s a bad thing, you silly goose (that’s an inside joke for Betty Lou Whooterson).

I’m coming to relish these shows, there is always so much that works, that it offsets what doesn’t. In a more serious theatre the ratio might be maddening, but at Minnsky you tend to just enjoy what works and shrug off what doesn’t. One moment you are tickled at the sheer number of Dr. Seuss references they can squeeze into the first 5 minutes of the play, the next you’re trying to figure out if the chaos on stage is planned or if they didn’t remember what happens next. But before you can figure it out, someone is taking their clothes off, and it isn’t going to be who you think. Yes, I’m talking about you fishing husbands. This show was less than the sum of its parts. If you judge How the Grinch Stole XXXMas as a whole, it doesn’t add up to the fun you have as you watch it. That is the key to enjoying these shows, focus on the moment, the moments are where these shows come alive.

There is a story here that could be turned into a fun cohesive play. I could tell you the plot, explain where I think it could be tightened what could be added in order to develop a stronger theme. But again, that really isn’t the point. Suffice to say it’s the plot of the classic Grinch story filtered through a romantic comedy, with a healthy dose of Minnesota and risque humor, and topped off with iconic 90’s music. I can tell you who belongs on the stage, and I will point out the standouts, and who maybe wasn’t ready for the big show yet, which I will not do. Because this is another key to enjoying a Minnsky show, inclusion. You get the feeling watching a Minnsky show that if you have a desire to perform, they are going to give you a shot. Most productions that would be a negative, but somehow the Minnsky has turned this into one of it’s most winning characteristics. Not only are you being entertained by the cast but you are also being inspired by them. There are performers on stage doing things that require confidence and courage. A meaner audience might mock some of them, but that would be a comment on that audience not these performers. You feel watching them that they are embracing who they are and what they want to be doing. I am envious of those who achieve that level of unselfconsciousness. It is beautiful to see someone achieving this level of self love and embracing their beauty and talents. This is a cast to be celebrated, not criticised.

So let me briefly celebrated a few of the standouts, let me first acknowledge I know these are not their actual names, but I’m going off of the cards in the lobby. Jac Fatale as Betty Lou Whooterson the Mom of the Whooterville family the show is focused on. She is channeling the Fargo characterization to great effect. There was also a duet towards the beginning that starts out as a lip synch and then turns into the performers actually singing I’ll Always Love you … really good! it was a scene that was silly, funny and then amazing. Tifd Ynamite as The Grinch has an ease on stage and delivery that carries the show, whether it be interacting with Cindy Lou, The Narrator, or his Dog Max. Mimi Clochette as Cindy Lou Whooter also shines and comes across as an experienced performer who can bring the naughty and the nice. There are two near silent roles that were probably the most accomplished of the show Bookie Blues as Max and Miss Pussy Willow as Mittens the Cat. Both of these performers perfectly stayed in character, they were always doing some piece of business that fit, even when the audience wasn’t supposed to be looking at them. Mittens would be crawling across the table licking the food staying in true cat form. Max is allowed to be more than just a dog, he is more like Silent Bob to the Grinch’s Jay. That is a parallel that could probably be mined for a joke or two. The two animals also share my favorite acrobatic sequence when they take turns and then share the giant air hoop, again staying in character while doing so.

How the Grinch Stole XXXMas plays through December 13th for more information and to purchase tickets visit their website at https://www.minnsky.com/ If you are looking for something fun to do with your adult friends this holiday season check it out, it’s a wacky, Silly and naughtily fun. It is an 18+ show, it’s probably not something to take Grandma or your look obsessed judgemental friends too. But anyone else 18 or older, particularly if you were pop culturally aware in the 90’s will enjoy it.

The Rocky Horror Show Resurrects at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul

Celena Vera Morgan, Randy Schmeling, and Hope Nordquist. (Photo by Dan Norman)

This was my second visit to Park Square Theatre in Downtown St. Paul. My first visit was just last August for the Trilogy of Agatha Christie one acts Rule of Thumb. It’s another of these theaters that has that mid-range seating capacity, more than 100 but not so large that you’d say there was really a bad seat in the house. They sell the usual nibbles in the lobby as well as a selection of drinks soft and hard, and as a nice change they offered lemonade. Both shows I’ve attended they have also had a featured cocktail designed to tie in with the show. There are plenty of dining options at hand, several of which share the same building as the theater and it’s two stages. I can personally recommend the Chili’s at the Loon Cafe, which must have a good relationship with the Theater as the manager was talking up the show to us as he showed us to our table.

Full Disclosure I’ve never seen a performance of The Rocky Horror Show before. Nor have I seen a public screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I have seen the film at home, and am aware of the basic shenanigans that take place at the perpetual midnight screenings. So I wasn’t unprepared for this performance and was ready to do my best to participate if so required. Unfortunately the Park Square Theater wasn’t as prepared as I was. I stood in line at the bar in order to purchase my participation kit, only to find out they had sold out. This struck me as extremely poor planning, or a slapdash approach to the whole participation approach. I was there with a group of 12 people none of us were able to buy kits. The theater was not near sold out. And of the decently filled theater there didn’t seem to be many who had kits. This wasn’t the final weekend of the show or even the last performance of the weekend. I’m not sure how I feel about audience participation in a live stage production, but if you are planning to encourage it, then commit to the idea. In fact rather than selling a participation pack for $5 at the bar, raise the ticket price by $5 and include it with admission. I can see where full audience participation could add something unique but the weak and sporadic approach to the interaction came more as a distraction than an enhancement.

As for the performance itself, whether you are familiar with the show or a Rocky Horror virgin you will be entertained. The show opens with the narrator played with the perfect level of camp by Ricky Morisseau and an effective lighting and makeup effect that focuses on the lips of Actress Hope Nordquist singing “Science Fiction/Double Feature” which sets the tone for what is to come. Which is a mash-up of the science fiction and horror films that played on Saturday afternoons and late at night when I was a kid and sexual boundry pushing. We then follow Brad and Janet played by Ben Lohrberg and Natalie Shaw, a newly engaged innocent couple stranded during a thunderstorm after their car breaks down they seek shelter and the use of a phone at the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. What they encounter there is an exploration of nightmares, fantasies, or perhaps a combination of both depending on your personal tastes. Once inside the castle they meet Riff Raff played by Randy Schmeling and a menagerie of odd looking and behaving people. Immediately they begin to wonder what they have walked into. When they break into the iconic song and dance “The Time Warp” Brad and Janet have decided it’s time to take their leave. Before they can leave Gracie Anderson appears as Dr. Frank-N-Furter the “Sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania.” They are then ushered up to the Dr.’s lab and out of their wet clothes where they will meet Rocky Horror played by Rush Benson, the blonde haired bikini briefed Adonis that is the Doctors latest creation . Thus begins the transformation of straight-laced Brad and Janet from buttoned up virgins to …well that might be spoiling things a bit.

Lohrberg and Shaw perfectly handle the two poles of their character arcs. No one would claim that there are any deep roles in Rocky Horror and Brad and Janet are probably the least showiest of roles, but they are the two characters that undergo the most change throughout. Not getting lost in the background to characters like Frank-N-Futer, Riff Raff and Rocky Horror takes skill and they find all the right notes to keep their characters in balance. The entire cast performs well, Standouts to me vocaly were Hope Nordquist and Cameron Reeves as Magenta and Eddie, but it is a uniformly strong cast. The star of the show is Gracie Anderson, she has the most over the top role of Dr. Frank-N-Futer, There is a lot to play with, and a lot of people to play with, in this role. She seems to be relishing the outrageousness of the character that dominates everyone else on stage. There’s a nice little bit where she illustrates her dominance over one of her servants by literally putting her under foot. Anderson has a fantastic voice and a commanding stage presence, and she does a great job with the role.

So I struggle with how I feel about Anderson in the role. The Director/Choreographer Ilana Ransom Toeplitz writes in her program notes “Nobody is going to benefit from watching a man do a Tim Curry impression in a pair of cheap heels and fishnets.” as her justification for casting Anderson in the role. First of all I think this undercuts the role of all actors male and female to suggest that the only way to play a role is in the style of the person who made it famous. This is suggesting that if a man had been cast that’s all they could have done with the role. We live in a time when actors are pressured to relinquish roles as Transgender characters because they are not transgender. One school of thought says Acting is becoming someone other than you are and any actor should be considered for any role, we don’t have to be a Dr. to play a Dr. and we shouldn’t have to be a transgender person in order to play transgender. The other school of thought is that there are Transgender actors out there that are under represented and they should be considered first for those roles. We all know that there are more talented performers out there of all races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and physical abilities then there are roles to go around. If this was a small town in rural MN casting this show it would not be an issue what gender the person you cast in the role was. You would have a limited pool from which to cast and you’d pick the person that was the closest fit talent wise for the role. But this is the twin Cities, there would seem to be a nearly inexhaustible supply of highly talented people who could fill the role. This role is traditionally played by a man and there is a transgressive aspect to some of the sexual situations that come about later in the show that challenge societal taboos. While we could say that those same taboos are still challenged by the gender swap I think the effect is lessened significantly. Rather than presenting something that is still challenging to much of mainstream America, you have transferred the most transgressive element to the configuration that became nearly mainstream about the time Midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show began. It seems to me under the guise of not playing it safe Park Square Theatre’s production actually creates a less challenging show. The Rocky Horror Show probably lost the ability to shock decades ago, but it can still make us confront some of those old hang ups.

This is still a fun show, this is still a great cast making for a fun and engaging night out at the theater. Anderson does an amazing job. She is not responsible for the casting choices and should not be criticized for them, her talents and the role are well met. The production itself has a nice design, several lighting and staging ideas are quite clever and effective. Aside from the casting decision above the production is well directed and choreographed by Ilana Ransom Toeplitz. You are not going to go wrong with this production, it is fun, engaging and has a cast that really delivers. The Rocky Horror Show Plays through Nov. 2nd at The Park Square Theatre in St Paul, Tickets can be purchased online at https://parksquaretheatre.org/

Smokey Joe’s Cafe at The Ordway in St. Paul

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.