“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is not a contest but, if it were, Rajané Katurah would win it.
For the first half of the revue of songs composed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Katurah seems to be hiding her light under a bushel, blending into a series of group numbers. But she shines bright in the second half, with fierce, gospel-inflected renditions of “Hound Dog,” “Fools Fall in Love” and “Saved” that had me wondering what she’d be like as Effie in a local production of “Dreamgirls.” (Honestly: No wondering. She’d be fantastic.)
“Smokey Joe” is filled with showstoppers, even if there’s not exactly a show to stop, since it’s more concert than musical theater. Other highlights include Jay Young’s muscular bass accompaniment to Jorie Ann Kosel on “Trouble,” Dwight Leslie channeling Elvis’ pelvis in his dance moves for “Jailhouse Rock” (although could Presley do a roundoff?) and Emily Scinto creating a hullabaloo as she twitches to “Teach Me How to Shimmy” while barely wearing a Jeni O’Malley-designed, all-fringe minidress with a mind of its own.
Leiber and Stoller’s incredible catalog (also including “On Broadway” and “Stand by Me”) hits just about every demarcation on a pop/blues/doo-wop spectrum. Unlike other jukebox musicals, which sandwich songs into origin stories that mostly make you long for the original performers, these numbers have been recorded by so many different artists that it’s still possible for talented singers to make them their own. And, freed of chronology or context, the show is beautifully paced, deftly mixing torch songs with bangers and solos with duets and choral interpretations.
In general, the songs work best when they suit the Broadway belting style used by the nine-person cast. Tony-nominated choreographer/director Joshua Bergasse is at home when the show calls for his Temptations-meets-hip-hop brand of movement but less sure with, for instance, Kosel’s “Pearl’s a Singer,” a quietly sad tune that could use more nuance than it gets.
The production is exemplary, with a tight combo that boasts not one but two top Twin Cities bandleaders, Sanford Moore and Raymond Berg. They get to hang out on Tony Award winner Beowulf Boritt’s looker of a set, which anchors “Smokey Joe” in the world of theater whenever its ebullient performers threaten to take it into cruise-ship-lounge territory. Originally created for an off-Broadway production of “Smokey Joe,” the set was designed to resemble a stylish club, its walls entirely covered with glowing replicas of vintage radios. They’re a fitting homage to Leiber and Stoller, whose enduring songs have been lighting up radios for more than six decades, with no sign of stopping.