Powerful performances in "Smokey Joe's Cafe" capture the essence of rock. 

Smokin' at Swift Creek

Back before Tina Turner taught Mick Jagger how to shake it, before the Beatles brought long hair to America, even before Elvis Presley had hips, pop culture had Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and a new invention called rock 'n' roll.

Swift Creek Mill Theater's production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," which pays tribute to rock's rhythm and blues roots over the course of 40 Leiber and Stoller songs, is a clever, energetic presentation of the hit Broadway musical that includes not one word of dialogue. Directors Leslie Owens Harrington and Tom Width offer up a sizzling, cohesive cast of eight whose stamina over two hours rarely wanes. Where the shift from one song to another could be clunky, Swift Creek's ensemble makes it look seamless.

Part of the beauty of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is its simplicity. To pull it off, there's no need for fussing with a lot of fancy props — the star of the show is the music. It's clear Harrington and Width understand this, since the set is simple, the band is invisible, and the ensemble cast often incorporates subtle set changes into the performances. Harrington's choreography, like so much about Swift Creek's production of this musical, is classy.

Because music is the centerpiece at "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the singers have got to be great. By the end of Act I, it is hard to imagine any other singers doing songs like "Dance with Me," "On Broadway," and "Love Me/Don't." As with any ensemble, there are some real stars: Gail Cook Howell, with her leggy blonde-bombshell beauty, gets "Trouble" down pat and captures the heartbreak of being a has-been with "Pearl's a Singer." Whether Howell is singing or shimmying tabletop during "Teach Me How to Shimmy," this lady owns the stage whenever she is on it.

Sherron Fox, with her vampy blood-red feather boa, almost brings down the house with her rendition of "Don Juan." Fox comes back to tease again in "Some Cats Know," and she leaves no one in doubt about who's the boss during "You're The Boss." But the real scene-stealer is Randy Battle, who hammed it up in the show's funniest performance: "Shoppin' for Clothes," as the down-and-out "D.W. Washburn." She also shone as the poor soul Deseria Roots, who with her own divine, powerful voice, tries to bring all to Jesus in the gospel-infused "Saved."

The big question is this: Would Swift Creek's "Smokey Joe" pass the Mom test? Mine's a huge rock 'n' roll fan, so I took her along as my silent partner. I suspect she would have gotten up and boogied in the aisle if I hadn't been there.

All of the singers do justice to Paul Deiss and Elliott Bromley's musical direction. Billy Dye, Larry Cook, Kevin Bledsoe and James Opher bring their own blazing styles to crowd-pleasers like "Yakety Yak," "Little Egypt" and "Love Potion No. 9." Opher, particularly, gives the production a poignant end with his soulful take on "Spanish Harlem."

These performers sing and dance their hearts out. Who say's it's only rock 'n'

Latest in Miscellany


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Connect with Style Weekly

Most Popular Stories

  • Off the Beaten Path

    Off the Beaten Path

    A runner and lifelong lover of the James River captures evocative images of the park system in photo book.
    • Jul 27, 2021
  • Museum Makeovers

    Museum Makeovers

    How four Richmond museums are being transformed.
    • Jul 20, 2021
  • Deep Dive

    Deep Dive

    A writer attempts to find the best dive bars in town.
    • Jul 13, 2021
  • One Stop Shop

    One Stop Shop

    Jackson Ward’s beloved Stoplight Gelato set to reopen this fall with a new partner, Richmond Seltzer Co.
    • Jul 13, 2021
  • More »

Copyright © 2021 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation