Smokey Joe’s Cafe – Sing Around the Rosie
There is no stage too small for The Bad Oracle to review. Big money and big talent don’t necessarily correlate. This belief leads me into dark allies, down steep, rickety staircases, into seemingly abandoned warehouses and parking lots. And for what? Looking for inspiration. Looking for something that surprises me. And, the wonderful thing is, 99% of the time, I find it.
So, Saturday last, I found myself sitting on the kind of beige folding chair that has letters spray-painted on the back (“SMS BAND ROOM”) under truly horrible fluorescents (before flipping on the house lights, the stage manager calls out “Watch your eyes!”) in the clammy church basement where Artistic Synergy of Baltimore performs. It’s not a comfortable space, in fact, it’s crammed with all manor of church bric-a-brac, and those chairs are ass-breakers. And the show, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, isn’t the sort of thing that normally turns me on. It’s a cruise-line cabaret of the sort that Broadway packs the matinee blue-hairs into for a dose of nostalgia: a “celebration” of the songs of Leiber and Stoller. If the names don’t sound familiar to you, the song titles sure will; they penned such hits as “There Goes My Baby”, “Love Potion #9” and “Stand By Me”. There isn’t anything challenging at all about this work and maybe that’s kind of okay, I don’t know.
What I do know is that I was impressed by Smokey‘s pace. Lou Otero is, according to his bio, a first-time director, and I feared there might be a lot of air, but there wasn’t (probably also due to the solid chops of Music Director Jeff Baker). One song pleasingly flowed into the next, and even this crow found herself tapping that ol’foot. Otero is fairly intuitive in terms of his narrative instincts, but could use some practice with creating a cohesive show that supports a thoughtful vision. Joe is all over the place in terms of costumes (let’s get those red ties matching, gentlemen), set, lighting. It wasn’t that it didn’t work, exactly, it’s that it didn’t always work together. The largest issue I found was with vocals and music consistently out of balance, sometimes cringingly so. The awkward positioning of the lone ceiling mic didn’t help, for sure. The band is live, at least, and knows what they’re doing, and that is a relief.
But maybe I’m being a little picky. I think this show is for an audience that swells when church lets out, it’s community theater in the sense that community means “love”. These actors love being onstage and the audience for this probably loves watching them love being on stage. I don’t blame them. For a tiny theater like Artistic Synergy, there is some major, surprisingly major. talent up there (see, what did I tell you?). My absolute faves, for sure, were sisters Melissa Broy Fortson and Temple Fortson. They’re gorgeous belters, and both totally engage the audience every time they’re up. Numbers like “Hound Dog”, “Don Juan”, “You’re the Boss” and “Saved” sizzle with the power of the Fortsons. I really, really, REALLY wanted them to have a duet, but the closest I got was “I’m a Woman”. Time for someone to do Dreamgirls now, come the fuck on. Also great was Diane Maistros, who, I believe, has one hell of Mama Rose in her. She killed “I Keep Forgettin” and “Pearl’s a Singer” dead. Watch it Bette, Diane’s comin’ for ya. Jennifer Otero, however, looked a little terrified. She needs to dial her confidence wayyy up, if she wants to hang with the rest of these ladies. She’s got a sweet voice, but I lost her in the ensemble and her solo efforts, like “Falling” are hard to hear. Josh Schoff is a handsome lad who is a delight to watch and is a cool-cat crooner, especially in “Love Me/Don’t” (too bad about that sad, huge, baby-blue polo though). Lans Alexis hams it up in comic songs like “D.W. Washburn” and “Shoppin’ for Clothes”, and Tom Hartzell is a welcome presence in the group numbers. Tony Ringer turns in an energetic performance, especially with his “Jailhouse Rock”. Oh! And Thomas Ogar, who I see around town often and really like, is super cute, as always, and has some really fun moments in “Little Egypt” and “Charlie Brown”. If you hear them bells during the dance numbers, it’s because you got a ringer: Suzy Hasselbusch, the choreographer and, like a dancer dancer, pitches in from time to time, a wise choice, IMO.
BOTTOM LINE: Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller isn’t my bag, I admit, but the show is fun. Director Lou Otero keeps his cast moving right along and they’re enthusiastic and really pretty fucking great. I admire a company who seems really committed to getting all kinds of folks, from seasoned performers to those just finding their stage legs, up there and doing it. Is the show technically accomplished? No. Is the space awesome? Nope. But it’s fun, dammit, and maybe that’s what matters.
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