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Smokey Joe's Cafe

Forty rock and roll classics in just over 90 earnest minutes

Nine performers take you through 40 tunes by songwriting legends Leiber and Stoller. Photo credit: Tacoma Little Theatre

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I confess to having gone into Tacoma Little Theatre's production of Smokey Joe's Cafe under the mistaken impression that I was about to see a jukebox musical, when it's actually a revue that assembles almost 40 tunes by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. With absolutely no narrative through-line, all one has to hang their hat on is the strength of the performances (both from the singers and the band), the production design and the direction. Depending on your feelings regarding early rock and roll, this is a revue that will either captivate you with nostalgia and showmanship, or beg to have some sort of story grafted onto it.

As produced by Tacoma Little Theatre, with direction by Micheal O'Hara and musical direction by Terry O'Hara, I find myself somewhat in the middle of these two reactions. Having grown up listening to music from the ‘50s and ‘60s, I was excited to hear some songs that I hadn't listened to in quite some time. A large number of the 40 songs presented weren't radio staples at the time when I was growing up, though there are some ringers included that everyone should know - "Poison Ivy," "On Broadway," "Hound Dog," "There Goes My Baby," "Love Potion #9," and "Jailhouse Rock," being just a few. As for the others, it takes some dazzling performances to save Smokey Joe's Cafe from coming across as repetitive, because as solid as a lot of these songs are, it can get to feel a little same-y listening to so many of them back to back.

Thankfully, there are capable hands in the cast of Smokey Joe's Cafe, which consists of nine singers being backed by a live band. Split up, in the program, as "The Women" and "The Guys," the cast consists of Melanie Gladstone, Nancy Hebert, Ashley Jackson, Ashanti Proctor, Eric Glausell, Loucas Curry, Bruce Haasl, Kawika Huston, and Jermaine Lindsay. Over the course of the show, each one of them gets multiple opportunities to have the spotlight and show what they can do. As you'd expect from the time these songs were written in, a lot of the numbers have to do with women and men, leading to highlights like the smolderingly sexy "You're the Boss," the fun trifle of "Treat Me Nice," and the heartbreaking showstopper of "Love Me/Don't."

The high point of the evening, for me, was "Keep On Rollin'," which finds the guys planning to travel the country by railroad. It's a soulful, high energy number that finds the balance of singing and choreography at the show's best. It's here where Curry, making his debut performance at TLT, first establishes himself as a gifted comedic actor, though he makes a case for himself as a dramatic performer in the heart-rending "I (Who Have Nothing)." The band, throughout the whole night, acquits themselves nicely.

This is an emphatically earnest show, frequently barely skirting hokiness, but everyone involved is giving it their all. With some pesky technical troubles marking the only really low points, Smokey Joe's Cafe establishes itself as a fine, if sometimes exhausting, trip through rock and roll's infancy.

SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE, Fridays and Saturdays 7:30 p.m.; Sundays 2 p.m., through June 12, $22-$26, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma, 253.272.2281,

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