If you’re under 40 years of age and you see Smokey Joe’s Café, now at Cain Park, you might think the 1950s were a time of blissful racial sharing and tolerance. Indeed, the six African-American and three white performers hug and kiss and croon to each other as if they never even heard of Strom Thurmond.
But hey, every musical doesn’t have to wrestle with real issues. And a good way to do that is to plug into the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the rock mavens of the ‘50s who penned such timeless tunes as “Stand By Me,” “Love Potion #9,” “Kansas City.” and the title song.
This show, directed by Scott Plate, is all about the music and dancing (there are about four lines of dialogue), and the nine talented cast members give their all. The sweet-faced Ellis C. Dawson III croons “Love Me/Don’t” with fragility yet strength, and Eugene L. Sumlin lends his flashing smile and tender voice to “Loving You” (making a woman in the first row blush in the process).
Julia Rose Hines is the most accomplished dancer, weaving a magical spell in “Spanish Harlem,” and she heats up the stage in the “Trouble” duet with Nicole Sumlin. Kelly Autry is featured in “Jailhouse Rock,” although he can’t show off his dance moves in that number since he’s handcuffed to the set.
Many of the Leiber/Stiller songs call for a deep bass voice, and that is handled well by Darryl Lewis in songs such as “Charlie Brown.” For contrast, Malik Victorian leads the company with verve in “D.W. Washburn” and he digs deep in the sorrowful ballad “I (Who Have Nothing).”
Nyla Watson scores in “Fools Fall in Love” while Katherine DeBoer appears, fresh from starring in Next to Normal at Beck Center. She proves she can lend her singing and acting chops to “Pearl’s a Singer,” a song about failed dreams.
While the performers work immensely hard under the adept musical direction of Nathan Motta, the show is not perfect. Among the many big nits are a gaggle of tunes that never received much airplay back in the day. And for good reason. The beauty of a compendium show like this is that you can dump your C and D material into it and leave it to the production company to try and make it work.
Chorographer Gregory Daniels provides countless imaginative moves and dance steps for his troupe, but at times it all becomes almost hyperactive and you just want these people to stand still and sing for a spell.
And the scenic design by Trad A Burns, using corrugated metal sheets, a metal staircase and backlit "skylight" panels, suggests a rusty warehouse-type setting that never makes total sense with Tesia Dugsan Benson’s sometimes lush costumes.
But it’s neat to see black and white folks together, singin’ and dancin’ their hearts out. Especially when that happened so rarely back in the Eisenhower era.
So if you’re looking for a pleasant diversion on a summer evening, you’d better put this show on your menu. But if you prefer musicals to have meaning and substance, this show may just seem like just so much “Yakety Yak.”
Smokey Joe’s Café
Through June 30 at the Cain Park Alma Theatre, corner of Lee and Superior in Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000.