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THEATER REVIEW: Smokey Joe's Cafe

by Chris Conley

A word or two about Smokey Joe's Cafe, the Wausau Community Theater production that opens tonight at the Grand Theater. First, its a musical review, not a play. Its just songs; no plot, no storyline. Unlike traditional musicals where actors also have to be singers, well have just singing tonight. So what go anyway.

Smokey Joe's Cafe features the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and their radio hits from the late 1950s. Its important music, although you may not realize it:

Fe-fe, fi-fi, fo-fo, fum
I smell smoke in the auditorium
Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown
He's a clown, that Charlie Brown
He's gonna get caught
Just you wait and see
Why's everybody always pickin' on me

What could possibly be significant about The Coasters Charlie Brown, or their 1957 follow-up hit Yackety-Yak:

Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don't get no spendin' cash
If you don't scrub that kitchen floor
You ain't gonna rock and roll no more
Yakety yak (don't talk back)

These are some of the first African-American rock & roll songs that became popular with white audiences. Black R&B, which formed the foundation of Rock & Roll, had been around for a decade before these songs with dancable rhythms, big back-beats, and blaring saxaphones became hits with whites. And although you wont get that context from tonights performance, this is important music. Without the Coasters, thered be no Little Anthony (Tears On My Pillow) or Drifters (Under The Boardwalk). These are the groups and songs that paved the way for Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and the Motown sound. The Jackson Five, 70s disco, and 80s R&B funk are direct descendants. Without Lieber & Stoller songs, the white-rock branches of the rock & roll tree would have been dominant, with Bill Haley & His Comets, The Everly Brothers, and Carl Perkins crowding out other sounds.

When it was on Broadway a decade ago, Smoky Joes Caf wasnt a blockbuster, but it did good business because it had good songs. You know almost all of these tunes. Theyre fun to hear. The performance turns on whether the singers are strong and energetic. I bet thats exactly what Wausau Community Theater has come up with.

This is the kind of show that WCT does well. I expect a good time.

Chris Conley
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau

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THEATER REVIEW (WSAU) My allergies have been acting up, my family is away on vacation without me, and theres water in my basement yet at end of Smokey Joes Caf , I was in a very good mood. A kind of giddiness will come over you after the first few minutes. With no dialogue, no plot, and just catchy songs that you've probably heard many times before - all this show wants to do is make you feel good. And it does.

With music front-and-center, the band is as much the star as any member of the cast. And Daniel Larson has assembled the best show band Wausau has seen in recent memory. Six talented musicians carry us through the evening. Much of this music was written with a wailing saxophone in mind, and John Greiner generously lends his skills.

You will have a hard time keeping your eyes off Penny Mackedon. Shes part siren, part temptress, and is a very good dancer. She also has the evenings strongest voice.

As a community theater production, some of the numbers are uneven. Some are evening's songs are delivered better than others, hinging mostly on individual vocal talents. But there are some that are spot-on home runs. They include: Falling (Michelle Neumann), Kansas City (Nuemann, Michael F. Christner, Rita Berg), Poison Ivy (Christner, Andy Laub, Dale Burgess, Trevor Beaty), Don Juan (Mackedon), and Fools Fall in Love (Berg).

This is Wausau Community Theaters best show of the season. Do not miss it.


Performances of Smokey Joe's Cafe are at the Grand Theater in Wausau, Thursday at 6:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, and Sunday at 2pm.

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