Feb. 22 2012 12:00 AM

Riverwalk Theatre presents a rousing celebration of golden oldies


You don’t have to be a fool to fall in love with “Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller”: You just need to know the songs.

Comprising songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s classic hits from the 50s and 60s, “Café” celebrates the music of a rock ´n’ roll generation that helped turn budding artists like Elvis Presley into cultural icons.

But the original voices are not essential to spark these songs, as the fantastically talented and diverse cast of Riverwalk Theatre proves. If anything, these remakes typically exceed their original counterparts, giving fresh life to timeless tunes with flair.

Co-directors Hope Rollins and Diane Spicer could have avoided any elements of theatricality or drama in production. Without dialogue or any over-arching plot, Rollins and Spicer might just as well have turned this two-hour musical revue into an extended sing-along.

Instead, the performers take cues from the lyrics themselves to visually interpret the simple stories with clever choreography. For example: “Ruby Baby” chronicles Martin Kasprzak’s rhetorical quest for his girl, while “Dance With Me” showcases Rebecca Lane comically and unsuccessfully propositioning every male suitor on stage for a waltz. 

Additionally, a team of five choreographers (including Rollins) turns virtually every performer into synchronous dancing machines, deriving inspiration from classic doo wop/rhythm and blues acts, dancing fads and Presley himself.

The Smokey Joe’s male quintet made up of Kasprzak, Zurich Dawson, Lucas Holliday, Quenton Pannell and Daniel Shafer ties the show together as avatars of R&B artists like The Coasters and The Drifters. Each exhibits a clear sense of harmony and rhythm through the entire harmonic scale while maintaining a balanced blend. Although Dawson dominates on lead vocals with charisma and humor, he is matched by Kasprzak and Holliday, who deliver impressive renditions of “Kansas City” and “Jailhouse Rock” respectfully.

“Café” maintains a fairly consistent level of energy, but the pinnacle of sweatiness arrives at the end of Act I. In “D.W. Washburn,” Pannell plays the title lovable drunk who politely refuses assistance from the company-turned-church-congregation. But his complacency is no match for AnnaMaria Horn as the soaring soprano in “Saved,” a full-blown gospel jam that’s stirring enough to convert any non-believer. 

John Dale Smith leads the orchestra from behind the piano with remarkable precision, courtesy of his top-notch musicians. As a result, you never notice if instrumentation or arrangements differ from the original recordings. The singers and orchestra remain in perfect time, regardless of periodic crackles from the inferior body microphones.

Thankfully the rest of the technical elements — from Tom Ferris’ classy cabaret-style set design to Jack Hetherington’s appropriately mood conscious lighting design — provide the perfect ambiance for this variety show.

Although “Café” contains a few less-polished numbers, the transition times between songs are stunningly short, rendering a show that flows as well as it sounds.

Understandably, local theater can’t always attract the wide array of talent present in this production. But Rollins and Spicer did more than pull strong singers from varied locations; they combined creative energy with tenacious direction to deliver a first-rate show that provides everything it promises.

´Smokey Joe´s Cafe´

Riverwalk Theatre

Through Feb. 26

7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

$20 adults; $18 students, seniors, military personnel

(517) 482-5700