12:42 PM CDT, September 30, 2012
“Smokey Joe's Cafe,” or “Baby That's Rock 'n' Roll,” as it used to be known back when it first tried out in Chicago years ago, is a straight-up Broadway revue based on the formidable catalog of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. No more, no less. It fits quite sexily into the intimate confines of the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, where a four-piece band (sax and all), a full-blown set, enough costume changes to make any fool fall in love with someone, and a hugely promising young cast of performers have this diminutive joint cooking as if we're in Spanish Harlem.
The appeal of the piece is not some kind of conceptual brilliance or illuminating narrative frame (oh no), but the dizzying number and variety of songs that this pair wrote, most with hooks that could reach halfway across Chicago to reel in their catches. Unlike, say, single-composer revues of Broadway or American songbook fare, where fans tend to know what they are about to get, “Smokey Joe's” celebrates a pair of songwriters who are not necessarily linked to all their songs, which transcended genre and were associated more with the singers thereof than the writers.
Still, a Friday night spent enjoying “Pearl's a Singer” (recorded by Elkie Brooks) or “I (Who Have Nothing)” (which once did all right for Tom Jones) or “On Broadway” (a hit for The Drifters, et al.) is a Friday night well spent, especially when the singers are as strong and enthusiastic as the very game emerging talents belting out the likes of “Kansas City” and “Poison Ivy” in Rogers Park, before wiping off their sweaty brows and serving you a drink.
If you're understandably fearful of a cloying, cruise ship-style treatment of rock 'n' roll, you should know that this diverse cast, which includes Justin Adair, Kasey Alfonso, Sydney Charles, TJ Crawford, Robin K. Dasilva, Vasily Deris, Jaymes Osborne, Steven Perkins and Britt-Marie Sivertsen, has plenty of street cred and the Theo Ubique venue has mucho grit. When you're cramming this many decent singers and musicians into a space this small — not to mention the neon-infused setting — a zesty, exciting, slightly dangerous atmosphere can be achieved. The cast members all can belt out these numbers, but Dasilva is the night's anchor, nailing “Fools Fall in Love,” while the genial Deris particularly turns on the charm with “Neighborhood.”
Purists should note that this revue takes the catholic view of a Leiber and Stoller song; if the pair were somehow involved with its composition, it counts for inclusion, which helps explain why some 40 songs are performed here in a couple of hours.
The growing number of fans of this remarkable storefront enterprise know the Theo Ubique formula: Find young, mostly unknown talent with decent pipes and zesty spirits, and then stage the show as if you were in a much bigger theater. So it goes here. Director Brenda Didier has concocted a full-blown staging with all kinds of visual excitement. The light cues seemed to be going haywire Friday night, but Bill Morey's costumes were sexy enough to fully distract everyone from sudden switches in color.
The band, under the direction of Jeremy Ramey, one of Theo Ubique's secret weapons, sounds great. Could a few of the numbers have been probed deeper? Sure. But this show mostly is a retro party night, and these performers deliver a fine way to forget the stresses of the week, yakety yak.
NEW RUN: Now through May 26 at the Royal George Cabaret Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted Ave.; $25-$46.50 at ticketmaster.com