Thursday, August 18, 2011

Faulkner: "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

It's cool! It's hip! It's the Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller musical revue, Smokey Joe's Cafe...and, it's the best family entertainment in town that serves as a refreshing antidote to the sweltering weather in the dog-days of summer.

Directed by Angela Dickson, with musical direction by Marilyn Swears and her excellent 4-piece rock & roll band, and Kari Gatlin's creative choreography, Faulkner University dishes up an impressive musical entertainment that showcases the triple-threat cast's energetic talents in acting, singing, and dancing.

Taking us back to the 1950s -- the good old days celebrating romantic love in its various guises -- the play begins & ends with an invitation to the audience to "come back to the old neighborhood" and value the comraderie that allows us to honestly assess the present from the experiences of the past. -- Though there is no plot to speak of, the 40-or-so songs celebrate the inherent goodness in all of us.

It's non-stop entertainment all the way that keeps the audience engaged in familiar and not-so-familiar songs of the period [some like "Loving You" and "Hound Dog" made famous by Elvis Presley]. -- Too bad there were some unfortunate microphone glitches and some all-too-demure costume adjustments that drew attention to themselves and spoiled the otherwise authentic period look that costumer Emily Martin had established so well with her choices of evening gowns & tuxedos, and 1950s-era jackets & hats.

It took a couple of numbers to get the right rhythm to the evening, but when Kristi Rowan Humphreys took the stage with "Dance With Me" along with Michael Williams and the soon to be showcased male quartet [Tony Davidson, Matt Dickson, Eric McIntire, and Chase McMichen whose four-part harmony was spot-on], the show took off and never stopped. -- The quartet was featured several times in Act I -- "Keep On Rollin'", "Searchin'", "Poison Ivy", and "On Broadway", and as a quintet in Act II with Mr. Williams in "Little Egypt" (hugely funny), "There Goes My Baby", and "Love Potion #9 (Mr. McMichen at his comic best).

The women [Alyssa Boyd, Brittney Johnston, and Bethany Telehany joined Ms. Humphreys] too had ample talents to demonstrate in their quartet numbers: "Neighborhood", and especially their anthem to women's lib, "I'm A Woman", that brought the house down.

There are some high quality individual singing voices here that also blend well in duets, quartets, and ensemble singing. -- Whether in the effervescent "Trouble" performed with a lot of class by Ms. Telehany and Ms. Boyd, or a touching rendition of "Love Me/Don't" by Mr. McMichen and Ms. Johnston, or the sophisticated "You're the Boss" by Ms. Boyd and Mr. McIntire (whose comfortable bass voice complimented so many of the songs in the show), or Mr. Dickson's tender "Loving You" with a back-up chorus, the clever comic combining of Mr. Davidson's "Treat Me Nice" with Ms. Humphreys' response in "Hound Dog", and the comical ensemble "D. W. Washburn" that segued into a rousing evangelical rendering of "Saved" led by Ms. Humphreys, they gave constantly changing moods and interpretations to these numbers.

Solos allowed cast members to demonstrate a significant range too: Ms. Telehany's "Falling" featured her clear soprano; Ms. Johnston's passionate and deeply felt version of "Pearl's A Singer" was heartbreakingly good; Ms. Boyd's seductive temptress singing "Don Juan" was a delight; Mr. Davidson's amazingly strong falsetto rendering of unrequited love in "I (Who Have Nothing)"; and Ms. Humphrey's riveting version of "Fools Fall In Love" which was the simplest and single most compelling presentation of the night that allowed us into the inner life of the person.

An unexpected treat featured the band in "Some Cats Know", Ms. Swears' confident piano complimented in this bluesy number by Andrew Cook's smooth & enticing saxophone, percussion riffs by Trey Holladay, and laid-back bass provided by Mark Roberson.

Ms. Dickson and her entire company deserved the enthusiastic standing ovation they received. By the evening's end, we had all been affected by the production's good nature, its sensitive treatment of love & relationships, and the energy & enthusiasm of its talented cast. It's nice to exit the theatre feeling good. Would that there were more such high-quality guileless entertainments around.