Review of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at The Muny

    With 39 songs by the great team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Smokey Joe’s Cafe would be a treat under any circumstances. The current production at The Muny is much more than that.

    This show is The Muny’s first live presentation since 2019. That fact alone makes it a special occasion. In addition, the director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, has devised a uniquely meaningful concept for a production in St. Louis.

    Taking her cue from “Neighborhood,” the show’s opening number, Dodge sets the show in a specific St. Louis neighborhood—Gaslight Square. It was at its peak at the same time as Lieber and Stoller, in the 1950s and 60s, and even had a cafe called Smokey Joe’s Grecian Terrace. Scenic designer Edward E. Haynes, Jr. gives the restaurant’s sign and signature columns a prominent place in the set along with other reminders of Gaslight Square. Kevan Loney’s video design includes even more localization.

    Not a moment goes by in the show that isn’t enriched by Dodge’s direction and Josh Walden’s choreography (which is based on Dodge’s original choreography). A superb cast brings the concept to life. Some of my favorite numbers (in order of presentation) are:

    • “Kansas City” with Tiffany Mann, Dee Roscioli, and Michael Campayno
    • “Trouble” with Hayley Podschun and Nasia Thomas
    • “On Broadway” with Charl Brown, Jason Veasey, Christopher Sams, and Mykal Kilgore
    • “Spanish Harlem” with Sams and Thomas
    • “I (Who Have Nothing)” with Kilgore
    • “Stand By Me” with Brown and the company

    A youth ensemble of seventeen adds to the fun onstage. The band is in the orchestra pit in Act 1 and onstage in Act 2. Music director Abdul Hamid Royal leads a crack group of musicians including Jaret Landon, Aaron Brown, Bernard Long Jr., Tim Weddle, Mike Buerk, and Tony Scandora. Royal and Landon are the fine vocalists in “Stay a While.”

    The specificity of the neighborhood onstage is enhanced by designers Sully Ratke (costumes), Rob Denton (lighting), Kelley Jordan (wigs), and John Shivers and David Patridge (sound).

    Two of this season’s innovations at The Muny are particularly welcome. State-of-the-art scanners allow a continuous stream of physically distanced patrons to pass through security checkpoints without the delays typically associated with wands and bag checks. Also, cashless transactions seem to make the lines go faster at the concession stands.

    —Gerry Kowarsky