By CHARLES WHALEY
How fabulous it would be if every neighborhood sported a cozy, companionable joint much like Derby Dinner Playhouse’s “Smokey Joe’s Café,” the (Jerry) Leiber and (Mike) Stoller songbook celebration now on the Clarksville stage.
It’s a place where nostalgia jostles with good times, hard-driving romance, male-female contretemps, sexy dancing, and dynamic takes on more than 30 songs by a multi-talented cast of nine.
There’s no story line or dialogue, just song-after-terrifically-sold song on Lee Buckholz’s handsome streetscape set dotted with lamposts and benches. Associate producer Buckholz’s direction keeps things moving at top speed with Heather Paige Folsom’s vigorous choreography and Sharon Murray Harrah’s spot-on costumes ramping up the enjoyment.
And what a song list it is of early rock ‘n’ roll from the ‘50s and ‘60s immortalized by such as Elvis Presley, Dion, the Coasters and the Drifters.
“On Broadway,” that 1963 Drifters hit (Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill were collaborators) brought forth an appreciative howl of recognition as spiffy Alonzo Richmond, Lem Jackson, Christian Bradford and Lamont O’Neal, dressed in black and white and wearing shades, resurrected the era as they tapped, blended voices and postured.
Then there was force-of-nature Willie Illeana Kirven blasting out “Hound Dog” as a latter-day Big Mama Thornton, shoving aside thoughts of Elvis. “The Pelvis,” however, got a masterful “Jailhouse Rock” tribute from Matthew Chappell and company. Chappell also soared in an impassioned “I Who Have Nothing.”
Slinky, leggy Brooke Aston, trailing a mile-long red feather boa, was electrifying in “Don Juan,” matter-of-factly telling her man who’d lost his fortune that “when your money’s gone, your baby’s gone.” And she knocked out of the ballpark the cheekily erotic “Some Cats Know.”
“Dance With Me (and we’ll be lovers when the music ends)” switched gears hilariously when determined Willie Illeana Kirven went after guys scared to death that she’d get them.
The four women did booming right by “I’m a Woman,” their feminist manifesto, and the whole company, led by Alonzo Richmond, brought the festivities toward a close with a heartfelt “Stand By Me.”
It was a nice touch when musical director Scott Bradley from his piano bench sang a soulful “Stay a While.” His splendid fellow musicians in the show produced by Bekki Jo Schneider were Darryel Cotton (drums), Mark McCulloch (bass), Jim Schweickart (guitar), and Tim Whalen (saxophone).
“Smokey Joe’s Café” runs through April 1. For tickets and information call 812-288-8281, toll free 877-898-8577, or www.derbydinner.com.