Is it theater if nine performers sing 39 songs onstage with a band, using no dialogue or narration? “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” could be just a glorified concert of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller hits, but in Theatre Raleigh’s hands, it’s highly theatrical, with snappy choreography, mesmerizing vocals and focused characterizations.
Leiber and Stoller wrote for everyone from The Coasters and The Drifters to Elvis Presley and Peggy Lee. Although “Smokey” might have been a storyline jukebox musical like “Jersey Boys” or “Mama Mia,” it dares to stand alone on the songs’ inherent humor and drama.
Director Julia Murney and choreographer Abbey O’Brien meet the challenge expertly by astutely tailoring the show to the performers’ estimable voices and personalities. Lanky, rubber-bodied Saidu Sinlah gets laughs with his snooty disdain in “Treat Me Nice” and puts a lump in your throat with his painfully intense “I Who Have Nothing.” Melvin Gray’s sparkplug energy and thousand-watt smile give hilarious desperation to “There Goes My Baby” and heartfelt emotion to “Stand By Me.”
Good-guy Randy Cain uses his deep bass for vocal punch lines in “Charlie Brown” and to express sweet devotion in “You’re the Boss.” Darius Jordan Lee alternates between great physical comedy as a reluctant convert in “Saved” and dreamy romantic stylings in “Loving You.” John Langley rounds out the male cast, innocent in “Teach Me How to Shimmy” and raunchy in “Jailhouse Rock.”
The women are equally strong, starting with Yolanda Rabun’s rafters-raising “Fools Fall in Love” and frighteningly funny “Hound Dog.” Kate McMillan makes dramatic mini-plays out of “Pearl’s A Singer” and “I Keep Forgettin’,” while Annelise Cepero sensuously vamps through “Don Juan” and “Some Cats Know.” Cassidy Hamilton sheds her nice-girl persona in “Falling” for the sexy naughtiness of “Trouble.”
Murney and O’Brien reserve their cleverest staging for group numbers, such as the men’s “Little Egypt” and the women’s “I Am Woman.” Michael Santangelo’s tight six-piece band keeps all the numbers bouncing along, aided by Jenni Mann Becker’s atmospheric lighting and Allison White’s appropriate costumes.
Theatre Raleigh again proves it can supply first-rate talent to create a must-see production, boding well for the rest of the summer season.
What: “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” presented by Theatre Raleigh
Where: Kennedy Theatre, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. June 3, 7-10; 2 p.m. June 3, 10; 3 p.m. June 4, 11
Tickets: $32.50 (seniors/students/military $30.50)
Info: 919-832-9997 or theatreraleigh.com