Here’s a picture of a neighborhood, there’s the corner where they all stood. The neighborhood is Rosedale, in the basement of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church to be exact, and the corner? That’s Artistic Synergy, a staple of a community theatre in that corner of Baltimore. Presenting Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller as their spring musical, the company puts forth an enthusiastic effort that is well met with strong vocal talent to the less than cohesive musical revue. Directed by Lou Otero, with Musical Direction by Jeff Baker, this almost-40 song revue jumps quickly from one song to the next with a set of surprisingly familiar tunes that gets the toes tapping, the hands clapping, and the heart feeling good about musical theatre.
In true community fashion the Set and Costumes come together as a group effort, actors and technicians alike lending a hand to give the show a sparkly flare, particularly when it comes to feather boas and glittery gowns for the ladies in the classier numbers. Director Lou Otero’s vision for the production is a unique one, but one that brings a unifying thread of the otherwise disjointed revue, pulling the numbers together soundly. The set has two catchy Easter eggs, a treat for anyone who knows their musical theatre history, with the obvious one being “Leiber Lane” and “Stoller Street” street signs on either corner of the block’s ends.
Otero sets out to frame the production with one of the young male performers receiving a draft letter, appropriate for the time where most of the music occurs even if the costumes don’t always match up to this framework. The songs that follow serve as the still life memories from the scrapbook mentioned in the opening number, a smart and clever way to bring memory and recollection into these numbers. The final scene serves as the young man’s goodbye before he ships off and the blocking of this number delivers a touching emotional blow that really pulls Otero’s concept together.
The biggest issue with the production is the volume and balance ratio of the live orchestra against the singers. Despite having an overhead microphone and decent acoustics in the space, there are more than a handful of times where the orchestra drowns out the singers. This seems to happen with certain male performers more than female performers, and thankfully never during the bigger ensemble songs. Being a catch-22 of all smaller musical theatre productions, this seems a small price to pay for the luxury of live music in this performance because what isn’t heard lyrically in these instances is more than made up for with energy and enthusiasm by the performers.
Musical Director Jeff Baker does a fine job of blending harmonies across the ensemble. Numbers like “Young Blood” and “Poison Ivy” where the men perform a great deal of doo-wop style backup vocals are where Baker’s hard work is witnessed the most. But the most impressive thing about Baker’s focus as Musical Director of the performance is his rigid control of the tempo. There are virtually no moments where the orchestra is chasing the singers or vice versa, and the songs flow naturally and swiftly from one to the next without hesitation, taking the performers along with them. This makes for a quick evening of live entertainment and a thoroughly enjoyable series of catchy tunes.
With an ensemble of ten performers, and Otero at the helm, the show quickly becomes about the feelings of the songs— be they emotional or just plain fun— and how to best convey them to the audience. Dancing is laid over the production with a heavy hand by Choreographer Suzanne Hasselbusch, much to the pleasure of everyone watching. The moves are sharp, with a great many echoes to box-steps, two-steps, and strolls of the time; they are simple yet enticing throughout the performance. Hasselbusch, who also performers as the featured dancer in many of the shows numbers, is a delightful on-stage addition to the performance in addition to structuring the dance routines. Watch out for those fellas in “On Broadway”, which is an electrified slice of simplicity with sweet shuffles all through the numbers.
Lans Alexis and Tom Hartzell take turns at being the character man with songs like “Searchin’” and “Treat Me Nice.” Alexis delivers a surprisingly emotional rendition of “I (Who Have Nothing)” near the show’s finale and it resonates clearly from the moment he starts the song through the its end. Both Alexis and Hartzell provide sturdy back-up vocals for the male group numbers, many of which involve a bit of bouncing in place to create that authentic look of the time from which the songs arose. Thomas Ogar joins the fellas with his deep baritone base sound and makes for a great addition to the male ensemble. Ogar’s base-line solo in “Yakety Yak” is as humorously delivered as his character work in “Charlie Brown.”
Heartthrob and swooning crooner Josh Schoff takes point on a great many of the “boy band” style numbers, leading with a vocal flare that really captures the essence of Leiber and Stoller. Wailing away with charisma and charm for numbers like “Young Blood” and “There Goes My Baby” and “Love Potion #9”, Schoff displays an impressive vocal prowess, particularly when it comes to his held sustains and ability to rise above the orchestra in these numbers.
The female ensemble is vying for attention just as strongly as the guys in the show. Hasselbusch, as well as Jennifer Otero make cameo appearances here and there with Otero delivering a bittersweet and melancholy rendition of “Falling” early in the first act. Throw Diane Maistros into the mix and you’ve got the blasting belted sound of a ferocious woman clawing her way through these numbers that fits the grit of the character she’s channeling. Her half of “Love Me/Don’t”, a duet with the suave and sensual Josh Schoff, is emotionally ripe, and a nice contrast of softness to her more robustly belted and blasted numbers like “I Keep Forgetting’.”
Temple Fortson and Melissa Broy Fortson are fierce femme fatales and forces to be reckoned with. Leiber and Stoller should have written a dynamic duet where they’re forced to face off as that would certainly be a show-stopper. Temple all but brings the house to its feet with her soul-searching rendition of “Saved” at the end of the first act. Delivering a different type of soul during “Fools Fall in Love,” she all but melts into the melody and turns the song around. Showcasing her versatility with the slow and sultry rendition of “Hound Dog” she does Elvis proud.
Both Temple and her sister Melissa get to bring serious sass to “I’m a Woman,” arguably one of the fiercest numbers in the show. Melissa is her sister’s vocal equal and her belted sustains are marvelous. “Trouble” is a hard and fast sell of some deeply rooted personality, while “Don Juan” serves up her ability to have fun with the quirky little number. Strolling and strutting her way through “Some Cats Know,” Melissa shows the audience that she’s a cool cat, ya dig?
The show stealer is the quiet man, or the man who doesn’t seem to appear in the group numbers at first. Anthony Paul Ringer Sr. pops his knees, swivels his hips, and is channeling a million dollar quartet all throughout the evening. Between “Teach Me How to Shimmy” and the dance he performs with Hasselbusch in “Spanish Harlem” it’s a veritable throw-down of memory in the way his body expresses the music. But the true crowning glory of his performance? “Jailhouse Rock” where Ringer riles up the entire ensemble as well as the audience and gets carried away with the microphone. A musical theatre wonder, Ringer is a dead ringer for performance personalities.
They say there’s always magic in the air on Broadway. But you don’t need to go all the way to New York to feel that magic when it’s right here at Artistic Synergy in Smokey Joe’s Café.
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission
Smokey Joe’s Café plays through May 1, 2016 at Artistic Synergy in the basement of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church— 8212 Philadelphia Road in Rosedale, MD. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (410) 833-5181 or by purchasing them online.