Another visit to ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’

By Milan Paurich

The story is told entirely through the songs of Leiber and Stoller.

YOUNGSTOWN — Akron’s Carousel Dinner Theater may be a thing of the past, but dinner-theater is still alive and well in the Youngstown area.

Beginning Friday night, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” opens for a two-weekend run at the Fairview Arts and Outreach Center where it will be staged as a dinner-theater event. The latest undertaking of Brian Palumbo’s award-winning Top Hat Productions, “Cafe” will encompass both of Palumbo’s principal loves: musical theater and food. As chef-owner of Selah’s restaurant in downtown Struthers, Palumbo not only directed and stars in the show, but he’ll even be catering the “dinner” part of the evening’s entertainment.

Palumbo originally staged “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” back in the fall of 2001 at the Gentry in Hubbard before Top Hat had a permanent home. “Top Hat was the first in the area to get licensing for the show after being on a waiting list for what seemed like forever,” Palumbo recalled in a recent interview. “Although we’d operated as a touring company for more than 10 years, we needed a venue for local productions and the Gentry helped serve that purpose. We played around with table arrangements until we got the maximum seating while still allowing us a small floor for the stage.”

Because of overwhelming audience demand, Palumbo decided to revive “Cafe” seven-plus-years later. He’s also confident that he can do it better at the Fairview Center.

“Our lighting and props were at a minimum back then, but we’re now able to offer a better technical show as well as implement some moving props. We also have more complex choreography this time,” he said.

Of course, Palumbo knew that he wanted to take a crack at the musical ever since seeing it on Broadway back in the mid-’90s. The first “jukebox musical” to hit it big, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” helped pave the way for future j-box sensations like “Mamma Mia!” and “Jersey Boys.”

Inspired by the songbook of Grammy-winning composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, “Cafe” features more than three dozen Leiber/Stoller classics, including “There Goes My Baby,” “Stand by Me” and “Spanish Harlem.”

Palumbo explained that the songs help provide a narrative thread for the show. “We follow a group of innocent kids from the neighborhood as they search for their dreams while entering adulthood. As the show progresses, so do the characters’ lives.”

Staging a musical without dialogue — the story is told entirely through song — poses a unique set of challenges for both director and cast. “Something like this is definitely harder to do than a conventional book musical because you have to express a whole gamut of emotions without the luxury of dialogue,” Palumbo said. “It relies less on elaborate sets or costumes than the performance skills of the musicians and cast.”

Besides Palumbo, other Top Hat veterans featured in the show include Marlene Figley, Nikita Jones, Derrick High, Anthony Villa, Julie Palumbo and Marisa Zamary.

When asked whether the “Cafe” reprise was a one-time-only affair or if he envisioned bringing it back on an annual basis like Top Hat’s 16-years-and-counting Passion Play “The Earth Trembled,” Palumbo was noncommittal.

“I think I’ll have to let the audience decide,” he said with a laugh.

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