"Stand by Me" may be one of the most frequently recorded songs of the 20th century, but when Akron Watson's silky voice glides into the first phrase near the end of SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE, he found my aural pleasure spot.
Onstage at WaterTower Theatre through August 12, somebody put all their spare change in this jukebox musical. SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE is the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the genius writing duo behind some of the most popular songs in the 50's and 60's including "Hound Dog," "Treat Me Nice," and "On Broadway."
Although working with some powerhouse voices, Terry Martin directs the performers to rarely interact with one another, which removes even the slightest possibility for a driving plot. One song plods into the other, as the singers belt them to the audience in the glare of a shaky spotlight. The repetitive lighting design by David Natinsky not only hinders the show's energy, but also limits visibility of anyone on stage.
The second half of the show monumentally improves upon the first, as the live band (led by Adam C. Wright) rolls from behind their shroud and Chad Ostermiller gives a stunning solo on the saxophone.
Unlike the first half, which felt like amateur night at the Apollo, act two keeps everyone on stage allowing them to react, clap in rhythm and communicate. Maurice Verrett Johnson and Feleceia Benton (the only female who can act and sing) flirt across the table through their duet "You're the Boss." And the women join together in the show-stopping number "I'm a Woman" as the men slump into their chairs. Walter Lee will make you chuckle in "D.W. Washburn" and break your heart with his rendition of "I (Who Have Nothing)."
The unforgettable voices of the show almost carry it through the lack of direction and the horrific set designed by Clare Floyd DeVries, illuminated by cheap rope lighting that spells out Smokey Joe's – but without the apostrophe.
Lee, Watson and Benton deserve hearty rounds of applause, but SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE is not WaterTower at its best.
SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE runs through August 12 at the Addison Theatre Centre (15650 Addison Rd., Addison). Tickets can be purchased online or by phone (972) 450-6232.