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‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ offers real dinner-and-show deal

By Milan Paurich

Sunday, February 22, 2009

By Milan Paurich

Everyone is looking for a bargain in these tough economic times, and Top Hat Productions is currently offering a doozy of a deal at the Fairview Arts & Outreach Center. Top Hat’s dinner theater production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” combines a three-course meal and an outstanding evening of live theater for one low price. Sure beats a Blockbuster rental and a bucket of KFC.

Originally produced on Broadway back in 1995, ‘Smokey Joe’s” was one of the earliest and most successful “jukebox” musicals. Though never a critics’ darling, this cannily constructed assemblage of 39 tunes from the songbook of Tin Pan Alley composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is the very definition of an audience-pleaser. No wonder it remains the longest-running musical revue in Great White Way history.

Dialogue-free and largely plotless, the show begins sometime in the distant past as a group of nine childhood friends ponder their futures, both individually and collectively. From then it’s a wham-bam journey into — I’m assuming adulthood, as the old gang from the neighborhood charts their (sometimes) perilous path into the great unknown of life.

The only thread connecting the show’s two acts is the music of Leiber and Stoller, which approximates a narrative without ever truly committing to an actual storyline. Like an old MTV video from the earliest days of music television, you’re pretty much left to your own devices filling in the blanks between beats.

Performing without the benefit of a conventional musical theater book to provide niceties such as characterization and motivation poses a real challenge for the director and cast. Fortunately, Top Hat’s Brian Palumbo and his gifted ensemble are more than up to the task. In fact, their tenaciously committed performances might actually lead you to believe there’s more substance here than meets the eye — or ear.

Backed by a stellar five-member band that performs on an elevated platform just above the main stage, Palumbo and company sing and dance their hearts out for two-plus hours (the excellent choreography is by Top Hat mainstay Julie Palumbo). Doo-wop, rhythm and blues, bubble-gum, gospel, ballads and even country and western are just some of the genres represented through the course of the evening in a dizzying succession of high-energy production numbers.

If some vignettes work better than others, that’s only to be expected in this type of something-for-everyone musical smorgasbord. The high points, though, can send shivers down your spine.

Nikita R. Jones’ tempestuous “Fools Fall in Love” could single-handedly win her the 2009 Marquee Award as Best Supporting Actress if she hadn’t already cinched the deal a few scenes earlier with her rousing and raucous “Hound Dog.”

(Jones rightfully — and joyously — returns the song to the gender appropriate domain of its pre-Elvis originator, Big Mama Thornton.) Seventeen-year-old Derrick A. High II clearly has the chops to break hearts with the Drifters’ classic “There Goes My Baby.” I only wish that the number hadn’t been played as a vaudeville novelty routine. When High is allowed to turn on the heat in “I (Who Have Nothing)” a bit later, he brings down the house like a teenage Ben E. King.

Julie Palumbo may have missed her true calling as a can-can dancer in 1920’s Paris if her delicious “Teach Me How to Shimmy” is any indication of Palumbo’s hoofing abilities.

Bill Marr and Brian Palumbo do fun Elvis imitations in “Jailhouse Rock” and “Loving You” respectively, and Anthony Villa turns the King’s “Treat Me Nice” (snazzy pelvis thrusts included) into an old-fashioned show-stopper. Villa’s enviable Ray Bolger-esque physical elasticity — highlighted in Act Two’s “Yakety Yak”/”Charlie Brown” mash-up — marks him as a musical comedy superstar in the making. Also very good here are YSU student Joshua W. Green (wildly charismatic and a born hoofer), and platinum blonde knockout Marlene Figley.

The cast turns closing number “Stand by Me” into such a rousing, tent-revival-style powerhouse that I half-expected someone to yell out, “Can I get an amen?” But the audience members were already on their feet by that point, and you probably wouldn’t have been able to hear them in the midst of all the thunderous — and richly deserved applause.

X“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” runs through March 1 at the Fairview Arts & Outreach Center. For tickets and showtimes, call (330) 755-6412.