September 30, 2021
By Barbara Anne Kirshner
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Please take your seats
and grasp on to your armrests.
You’re about to be part of
a musical experience!
You WILL get the urge to
jump up, sing and dance.
GO for it!
You have just entered
SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ!!
On September 16, the lights came up once again on the Main Stage at the Engeman Theater since they were shuttered last March and there’s no better way to premier their 14th season of bringing professional theatre to Long Island audiences than with the Grammy Award winning and Tony nominated hit, Smokey Joe’s Café. This exceptional revue holds a special place at the Engeman since it was the very first show produced on their stage back in 2007.
The second the theater’s red curtains sweep open, we are catapulted into a dazzling world that is Broadway’s longest running musical review. This fast-paced show brims with 40 high powered hits by the prolific songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who wrote for icons like Elvis Presley, Ben E. King, The Coasters and The Drifters. The show is over in a blink of an eye and at the end all you want is an encore.
Since this is a musical revue it is devoid of dialogue, but the songs create little vignettes. It takes a talented ensemble to tell stories through song and that’s exactly what Deidre Goodwin has accomplished with her directorial choices, stunning choreography and perfect casting. Goodwin has placed the audience in the hands of these dynamic entertainers who ignite the house.
Soon the audience becomes a venerable character taking part in the show by punctuating the end of every song with enthusiastic cheers and applause. Audience response culminates with an explosive standing ovation at the curtain call. The one reprised song, Neighborhood, performed eloquently by the entire company, serves to connect the songs creating a scrapbook feel.
There are so many captivating moments in this show.
In Young Blood, we meet a quintet of male performers (Devinre Adams as Ken, Tasheim Ramsey Pack as Adrian, Christopher Brasfield as Victor, Brian Maurice Kinnard a Fred and Jeff Sullivan as Michael) with smooth dancing and powerful harmonies.
In Dance With Me, B.J. (Elizabeth Yetunde Adabale) wraps the lyrics around her BIG leather voice that sends chills. Adabale captivates each time she takes center stage.
As Pattie, Francesca Ferrari, in I Keep Forgettin’ and Pearl’s a Singer shows off her formidable vocal dexterity capable of filling the house with her high notes that fall into a gravelly blues sound that almost resurrects Janis Joplin.
DeLee, Alysha Morgan, in Teach Me How to Shimmy, stops the show with her incredible dance made even more exciting by costume designer David Withrow’s sparkling silver fringe mini dress, just one in his array of striking showpiece costumes that permit ease of movement.
Mars Storm Rucker as Brenda draped in Winthrow’s black gown replete with a mile long train, is sultry and seductive as they declare a no-nonsense ultimatum in the torch song Don Juan. Rucker returns with their gorgeous belting voice in Some Cats Know. Equipped with nothing more than a simple staged chair acting as their partner, this visual is reminiscent of a Bob Fosse Chicago routine.
Brasfield is a uniquely talented force with his comical whiskey guzzling D.W. Washburn, to his impressive falsetto that blasts into the stratosphere in his heart wrenching I (Who Have Nothing).
A battle of the sexes ensues when the female ensemble gives a scorching rendition of I’m a Woman that reads like a spiked heal smashing down on the men’s lascivious turn at Little Egypt.
Scenic designer David Goldstein has given each song its own setting by constructing a raised platform, stairs on one side and spiral staircase on the other against an abstract backdrop of city windows that are enhanced by John Burkland’s lighting design which morphs into a variety of colors from pinks to blues to whites to yellows behind the windowpanes signifying mood changes. An outstanding touch is the strings of vertical white lights that exhilarate and define On Broadway.
The songs never quit and the five piece band keeps the energy flowing. Highlighted instrumental solos add excitement to some numbers. Joel Levy’s saxophone fires up Spanish Harlem while Darnell White’s keyboard joins in the fun with Charlie Brown and Baby, That is Rock & Roll is infused with Ray Sabatello’s spirited guitar riffs and Russell Brown’s cool bass.
This is theatre at its best dropped right in the middle of Northport. From the moment you enter the Engeman, you are awed by the attention to detail from its well-appointed lobby to its stadium style seating. It is as if you have been lifted by a tornado of Oz-like proportion and dropped right in the middle of Broadway. That sensation continues all through this spectacular show until you step back outside only to realize you are indeed on bucolic Main Street.
Join the celebratory reopening of theatre at the Engeman with a show that is packed with hit songs, slick dance numbers and a first-rate cast. This is truly a feast for the mind and the soul.
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport presents Smokey Joe’s Cafe through Oct. 31. Tickets are $75 per person and include free valet parking. For more information or to order, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.