Slick “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, Encore Musical Theatre Company (review)

This is a good news-bad news review. Before I go further, let me just say that the very talented cast in Encore’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE sings well, dances well, and has stage presence to spare. The set looks great. The lighting right on target. The band sounds great. So what goes wrong?

Well…nothing that Encore could do about it, besides maybe pick a better show. I’m not a fan of revues, and that is what Smokey Joe is…two hours of Lieber and Stoller songs in a hodgepodge revue that has no storyline and which resorts to lights-down-lights-up scene changes for transitions. And not all of those songs are good. In fact, many of them are not.

It’s all sort of like watching a cruise ship show — no, it’s exactly like watching a cruise ship show — slick; well done; but ultimately unsatisfying as you head out of the theater and back to the ship’s casino.

The very talented ensemble cast sing, dance, and work very hard to please. It’s hard to single out any exceptions, so let me just say that the (entirely non-equity) cast is composed of Brian E. Buckner, Steve DeBruyne, Sebastian Gerstner, Cara Manor, Terrence D. Owens, Jr., Fatima Poggi, Thalia Shramm, and Amy Smidebush. Mysteriously missing is the 9th cast member the show is written for.

Most of the show glides along just great, with solos, combos and group numbers that feature each cast member individually, as well as in boy and girl groups. Missing is any sense of who these people are, except for very broad strokes that don’t hold as the show progresses. Might as well be variety show numbers following one after the other. I had that same sense after seeing the Broadway production (which inexplicably ran almost 5 years in the 90’s), so it’s not the fault of the hard-working folks at Encore. Some numbers work better than others: “Jailhouse Rock” and “Stand By Me” smolder….while “On Broadway” falls flat, not only because of the over-involved choreography, but also because the vocal mix just doesn’t work (it didn’t work on Broadway either, where it looked like the guys were going to swallow their body mics).

But that’s another thing — if ever a show calls out for body mics, it’s Smokey Joe. Soloists here are sometimes overwhelmed by the (offstage) band, and at other times by their own cast mates. They all sound great, and the blend is very good — but you lose the soloists entirely in places.

Leo Babcock has designed a dandy set with two sweeping curved staircases. Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes are serviceable without ever really evoking the 50’s or early 60’s. Matthew Tomich’s lighting design is generally spot on (except in one instance where beautifully spot-lit Steve and Thalia are suddenly aglow in full stage brightness that made my pupils spin).

All in all, I would always prefer a book musical (although Encore’s upcoming season of community theater type fare doesn’t make me want to run and buy tickets to any of them), but Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a well-done, well-produced musical revue. In her program note, Barbara F. Cullen states that the show is “so much more than a musical revue”. I beg to differ, and would actually say its the worst kind of musical revue – the type that has nothing but musical numbers and very little heart. That is not to slight this production which is top notch, but exactly what you would expect of a production of this show.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through February 26th, 3126 Broad Street, Dexter, MI 734-268-6200 or

%d bloggers like this: