Theater Review: Smokey Joe’s Cafe (Sept. 20 – Oct. 7)

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Studio Tenn presents:
Smokey Joe’s Café
The Franklin Theatre
419 Main Street, Franklin
Show times:  Thu – Sat 7 p.m., Sun 2 p.m.
Tickets: $47.50 – $57.50

Studio Tenn Theatre Company opens its third full season with an often-presented musical in the South — usually among community theater operations — Smokey Joe’s Café. The show is a musical revue of nearly 40 songs created by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, most notable among them are “On Broadway,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion #9,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Stand By Me.”

The selection of this particular show is outside of Studio Tenn’s mission “to bring classic works of drama and musical theater” to its stage; Smokey Joe’s Café first arrived on Broadway in 1995.

That said, I’m not a huge fan of jukebox musicals — although I love shows like Pump Boys and Dinettes and the smash hit, Jersey Boys — I’ll give anything a whirl. This production is a misstep for Studio Tenn. It would make for an excellent theme park side show, but it is not the high caliber performance I’ve come to know and expect from Studio Tenn. Of course, it doesn’t help that Smokey Joe’s has no plot or narrative whatsoever.

Director Matt Logan’s set design is spectacular, as always, but in this instance, the stage itself actually upstages the cast — in particular, the fact that the audience can purchase drinks at the bar on stage before the show and during intermission (a great treat since everybody loves to be on a stage). In addition, the lighting is wonderful and the band plays tight arrangements.

Unfortunately, the cast of eight — Melinda Doolittle, Ryan Greenawalt, Libby Hodges, Harvey Hubert, Laura Matula, John-Mark McGaha, Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano Ramirez — do little to bring the list of pop standards to life. There is much more of a feel that the singers are going through the motions versus living the songs. A lot of enunciation problems make it difficult to decipher the lyrics being sung, which doesn’t do any favors to a show without dialogue.

While this one didn’t resonate with me, I do have high hopes with the other two musicals this season that take the stage next spring — Big River and My Fair Lady.

Chad Young is the managing editor and arts/entertainment editor for this publication.

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