Smokin' hot cast for Circa's 'Smokey Joe's'

Posted Online: Sept. 27, 2012, 8:43 am
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By Jonathan Turner,
Who needs a story or dialogue when you have a show as entertaining as "Smokey Joe's Cafe"?

The new production at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island, is a brightly colorful, high-energy, musical powerhouse -- tirelessly performed with style and sizzle. The plotless (but dance-filled) revue of 39 pop standards by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- which ran on Broadway from 1995 to 2000 -- includes an eclectic, dazzling collection of hits. Even the little-known numbers here strike a major chord.

Frequent Circa scenic artist Susan Holgersson, with scenic designer Nelson Ruger IV, creates a larger-than-life set that evokes a jukebox, records and radio in bold primary colors. It's appropriate, given this is basically a jukebox musical, with one great tune piling up, uninterrupted except for intermission, after the other, and an astonishing number of costume changes from this supremely talented cast of nine.

The sweetly nostalgic air is introduced at the start with "Neighborhood," whose lyrics include: "Faded pictures in my scrapbook/Just thought I'd take one more look." That's kind of like what these old songs are -- recalling good times from the 1950s and '60s, re-interpreting them with fresh, glorious new life.

The dynamic, relentlessly lively cast begins with Kiarri Andrews in the soulful, exuberant "Young Blood." In "Falling," a typically '50s triple-time number, the perky Nina Schreckengost first displays her bright, clear voice. "Ruby Baby" is led by Jonathan Roth with strong propulsive energy. One of the advantages of this show is that every singer gets a chance to shine, and boy, do they.

"Dance With Me" shows off the smooth CJ Williams, and the big, powerful voice of Deidra Grace -- who's a Circa favorite from "All Shook Up" and "Hairspray." "Keep on Rollin'" is one of many songs that feature wondrously close harmonies. In the tight choreography for "Searchin'," Joseph Baez comes out to the audience and walks along a ledge while singing. "Trouble" by Ms. Schreckengost and Patricia Gibson is tough-talking, sassy and confident.

The medley of "Love Me" and "Don't" has Mr. Andrews and Sara King sing their heartfelt ballads separately, then converge in lovely harmony. In "Fools Fall in Love," Ms. Grace stands and spins on the center "turntable." Ms. Gibson wins us over in the seductive tango "Don Juan," wearing a sparkly purple dress and black feather boa, she goes into the crowd and sings to two men.

"On Broadway" has four guys in matching tuxedos, with purple jackets and sunglasses, who share the lead vocals. The show-stopping Act 1 finale, "Saved," led by Ms. Grace, is a thrilling, high-octane gospel number, reveling in the heavenly glory, and a big finish.

"Yakity Yak" sensibly and seamlessly flows into "Charlie Brown," since both have a rollicking feel. Ms. King, who co-starred in Circa's "Legally Blonde," reveals tremendous vocal range and drama in "Pearl's a Singer," from belting to sensitively nuanced, and a quiet, reflective end. "Teach Me How to Shimmy" has Ms. Schreckengost dancing in a raised cage, where she makes the most of that small space.

"You're the Boss" is a sultry, bluesy duet between the impressive bass Denzel Edmondson and Ms. Gibson, and "Loving You" is very romantic, with couples dancing. Here, when the mirrored ball at the top spins, throwing lights across the theater, combined with the starry backdrop, it makes a beautiful, magical effect.

"Hound Dog" is one of many highlights, as Ms. Grace wields the song like a whip, threatening Mr. Baez, who crawls on all fours and is woman-handled by the imposing Ms. Grace. She joins her female friends in "I'm a Woman," a defiant feminist anthem, where they assert their independence and it raises the roof.

It's naturally followed by all five men in "There Goes My Baby," in colorful suits, whose hues echo those of the set. Ms. Gibson's "Some Cats Know" is slow, slinky and sultry. Mr. Baez's "Spanish Harlem" and the guys' "Love Potion #9" are insinuating and intoxicating. Mr. Williams stands out in "I Who Have Nothing" with an amazing falsetto, and an impassioned, pleading performance.

The evening ends with perhaps the biggest hits, "Stand By Me," and (after bows) "Jailhouse Rock," which again gets the audience whipped into exhilaration, joyously clapping along, not wanting the night to end.

If you go

-- What: "Smokey Joe's Cafe."
-- When: Today through Nov. 3; 7:45 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5:45 p.m. Sundays, and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m.
-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $47.55 (including dinner and show), $41.28 for matinees (plated lunch), $28.22 for students (18 and younger), and $2 off for seniors 60 and older. Call (309) 786-7733, ext. 2, or go to


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