Prior to the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's opening-night performance of Smokey Joe's Café, and immediately following the Bootleggers' "birth of rock 'n' roll"-themed pre-show, my partner's daughter, Hannah, tried to argue that the doo-wop style of music heard in the wait staff's entertainment was not rock n' roll because ... well, because she's 13 and knows everything, the history of the genre be damned. Yet despite also proclaiming that she hated this sort of "it's not really rock 'n' roll" music that I warned her would populate the entire evening's entertainment, Hannah was all smiles at intermission, excitedly talking about how much she loved the songs, and even citing a few favorites by name. I hope Hannah's changes of opinion and attitude are testaments to the quality of Circa '21's endeavor. It's truly fantastic.
The production finds director/choreographer Tony Parise taking us on a tour of songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in a revue that's nothing but the composers' music; there's no storyline, and there are no characters. Smokey Joe's Café is simply a theatrical revue featuring 39 of Leiber & Stoller's pop standards - among them "Kansas City," "Fools Fall in Love," and "Love Potion No. 9" - and set against scenic designer Susan D. Holgersson's colorful, oversize record player, radio, and jukebox, Parise's presentation is filled with infectious energy, which emanates from a cast of nine incredibly gifted singers.
Back again after a notable turn as Paulette in Circa '21's Legally Blonde: The Musical this past summer, Sara King, unfortunately, isn't allowed to show off her acting talent here, but does reveal a knack for theatrical vocal interpretation in her solo performance of "Pearl's a Singer." Nina Schreckengost begins "Falling" with fine vocals, but it's her belt voice toward the end of the song - which, later, is also let loose during the duet "Trouble" - that really impresses. Singing "Trouble" alongside Schreckengost, Patricia Gibson delivers a blend of speaking and singing that proves how great that style of performance is when done right; she puts so much moxie into her vocal deliveries that I couldn't help but be captivated by Gibson during this number, and was even more taken with her in "Don Juan."
Meanwhile, following her commanding take on "Dance with Me," and for the rest of the evening, Deidra Grace only had to set foot on stage for me to perk up in anticipation of a powerhouse performance, and exceptional vocal quality, that would pierce me to the bone. Grace first left her mark on the Circa '21 stage last year as Sylvia in All Shook Up and reaffirmed her theatrical greatness as Hairspray's Motormouth Maybelle, and frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing her in the venue's every production from now until the end of time, now that my theatre crush has been solidified with her Act I closer "Saved."
The male singers here fare just as well as the women, with Jonathan Scott Roth attacking his numbers, starting with "Ruby Baby," with wonderfully high energy. And while the rest of the men in the production are noteworthy for their solo performances, it's the vocal melding of Kiarri D. Andrews, Joseph J. Baez, Denzel Edmondson, and C.J. Williams that's most impressive. Their four voices blend together so well it's as if the singers have been a pop quartet for ages, with especially smooth harmonies heard on "Keep on Rollin'," "Searchin'," and, my personal favorite, "Poison Ivy." (They also get to show off some of Parise's most interesting choreography, performing repetitive, backup-singer-style movements that are both traditional and like nothing I've ever seen.)
While I do think Smokey Joe's Cafe has a disproportionate number of mellow tunes in its second half - tunes that actually lulled Hannah and her nine-year-old sister to sleep - Circa '21's production remains a rockin' good time that showcases stellar vocal talent.
Smokey Joe's Café runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through November 3, and information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.