Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller

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Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller

The last time this revue of 50s and 60s rock and soul hits by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller played at the Shubert, it came off as a slick, shallow nostalgiafest that shifted emotions with the mechanical efficiency of a jukebox flipping 45s. That's all changed in the latest touring edition of the recently closed Broadway production (which began life here at the Royal George in the mid-90s, under the title Baby That's Rock 'n' Roll). The reason is "guest star" Gladys Knight, who's an accomplished actress as well as a sensational singer. Though her career was never closely associated with Leiber and Stoller, she is very much of their era, having toured with the likes of Ben E. King before breaking into the R & B top 20 in 1961. So when Knight wails on King classics like "Stand by Me" and "I (Who Have Nothing)," she communicates a deep connection to the material that not even the most technically dazzling contemporary singer can match. Knight's unfussy, spiritually centered stage presence and gritty yet supple alto add a welcome gravity and authenticity to this flashy, fast-paced tour through the Leiber-Stoller songbook. Even when she's not onstage--and she's not onstage nearly enough--her influence enriches the performances of the dynamic youngsters who fill out the cast. They're a cross section of 60s pop types: Darryl J. Williams, John Woodard III, Desmond Dent, and diminutive comedian Jeffrey Polk, the quintessential black male quartet on tunes like "Young Blood" and "On Broadway"; Elvis-pelvised white rocker Freddy Moretine and Ann-Margret-like sex kitten Kristin Gorman; country crooner Jill Stacey Carlen; gospel belter Kathleen Murphy, who raises the rafters with "Fools Fall in Love"; and sultry Venise L. Eldridge, whose sly and sassy "Don Juan" and "Some Cats Know" raise the theater's temperature a few degrees. When Knight teams up with her costars--as in the powerhouse female quartet "I'm a Woman"--the effect is breathtaking; factor in Jerry Zaks's canny direction, Joey McKneely's inventive choreography, William Ivey Long's period-perfect costumes, Heidi Ettinger's vibrantly colored set, and the driving musical direction of Louis St. Louis and you've got one hell of a show. Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1500. Through February 13: Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 PM. $20-$67.50. --Albert Williams

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