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Dueling Cafes 

In terms of entertainment value -- and one might well wonder what terms could be more relevant to the genre of musical revues -- David stacks up surprisingly well against Goliath in two current productions of Smokey Joe's Cafe. The little guy, in this instance, is the Skyfire Theatre in downtown Covington, and Goliath is the mighty Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS), which in its 27 seasons has amassed budgets, and with them, production values to rival any local performing arts producer.

In comparing the two, the equalizing factor is the material. The show is subtitled "The Songs of Leiber and Stoller," as in Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. These two white kids, one from Baltimore and one from New York City, started co-writing songs early in life, making their first sale in the early 1950s -- their moms had to act as cosigners on their contract. They got it right the first time (and many times after that as well). That initial song was "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog." Big Mama Thornton first recorded the song in 1952, but it wasn't until Elvis Presley began gyrating to it in 1956 that it became wildly popular.

Leiber and Stoller spent much of their careers writing for two contrasting doo-wop quartets: The Drifters, whose style was silky, and The Coasters, promoted as "The Clown Princes of Rock 'n' Roll." The audience members who missed out on the '50s and '60s are left to speculate about who popularized which tunes and when they were written. JPAS at least lists the song titles in its program -- including "There Goes My Baby," "I'm a Woman," and "Stand by Me," in addition to other gems.

The songs are the not-so-secret key to the show's success. Musical revues being short on plot -- this one attempts no pretense at a story line -- the songs are the show. And while they are challenging songs for even the most experienced voices (as we see in these productions, it doesn't seem to matter here. The tunes are virtually foolproof crowd-pleasers. A JPAS audience member complained briefly of off-key moments, but it didn't stop her from tapping her ladylike shoes to the beat. Audiences at both shows clapped in time with the music, and at the Skyfire a couple started dancing in the aisle. Yes, really.

Still, songs need singers (and musical accompaniment, which was excellent in both). The ensemble was stronger overall at JPAS. Yolanda Ratcliff distinguished herself from the pack with a versatile and sumptuous voice that could be warm and sweet on "(Baby) Don't (Say No)," flush with attitude on the comic "Don Juan," and positively ringing out in "Saved."

In the train-themed "Keep on Rollin'" the JPAS men were well directed in a memorable, looking-off-into-the-distance moment at the song's opening. "Little Egypt," another men's ensemble number, features some clever choreography as they convincingly watch the exotic dancer of the song's title, who is not represented onstage. Ade Herbert does a winning job with this bit of singing/storytelling as Little Egypt's amazed admirer, who is so taken with her talents that he becomes the father of their seven children.

At the Skyfire in Covington, Althea Williams was a standout in the show-stealing women's numbers, including the aforementioned "Don Juan," as well as "Trouble," the refrain of which goes "I'm evil / My middle name is misery." Williams is all legs, arms and giant toothy smile, and she can move as well as sing. Despite her height, there isn't much of her, but she shakes what she's got with aplomb in "Teach Me How to Shimmy," sung by the men while she provides the appropriate demonstration.

The charismatic Tory Andrus does a charming bit of character acting when (based on its absence in the JPAS production) he improvises a monologue as the gutter-inhabiting "D.W. Washburn." While Andrus is not the production's best singer (that title goes to Alex Reed, whose "Stand By Me" is achingly sincere) or dancer (Julius Feltus, IV, who executes some nice pirouettes and leaps) he is the strongest overall. He sells "Love Potion Number 9" despite stretching believability when he sings that he's always been a "flop with chicks." Anyone who has seen Andrus will know that's hard to believe. The Skyfire production was nicely directed by Leo Jones, who also performs -- so well, in fact, that he was in danger of stealing a couple of numbers with supple dancing and the joy of performing written all over his face.

Thanks to deeper pockets, the JPAS production looked better. The costumes did a better job of evoking the era, and the six-piece band onstage anchored the set -- an elegant cityscape, light glowing from apartment windows. But what Skyfire lacked in production values, it partly made up for in intimacy. It should be noted that JPAS director Brandt Blocker directed Skyfire director Jones in Le Petit's production of the Louis Jordan musical revue, Five Guys Named Moe, less than a year ago. Obviously, both directors learned some valuable lessons from the experience, for anyone with a beating heart couldn't help but have fun at both of these productions.

click to enlarge Leo Jones and Althea Jones duet together on "You're the Boss" as part of Skyfire Theatre's presentation of Smokey Joe's Cafe -- one of two recent productions of the Leiber & Stoller revue.
  • Leo Jones and Althea Jones duet together on "You're the Boss" as part of Skyfire Theatre's presentation of Smokey Joe's Cafe -- one of two recent productions of the Leiber & Stoller revue.


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