Theater review: ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ Another Hit for Studio Tenn

Smokey Joe's Cafe 1FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Studio Tenn Theatre Company’s smooth and sultry take on Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller is simply sublime. And like the two legends celebrated through that music revue, this young troupe keeps churning out the onstage hits.

The consummately professional ensemble offers an invigorating cocktail comprised of more than 30 songs from the legendary catalog of songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Director Matt Logan once again brings design and performance elements together in perfect harmony.

Smokey Joe's Cafe 2Just a partial look at the song list – “Kansas City,” “Trouble,” “Fools Fall In Love,” “Poison Ivy,” “On Broadway,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Loving You,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Hound Dog,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Love Potion #9,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Spanish Harlem,” “I (Who Have Nothing)” and “Stand by Me” – makes it easy to understand why the original Broadway cast album won a Grammy in 1996. And it’s also understandable that such popular American tunes would fuel a 2,036-performance run on the Great White Way.

Yes, some critics have been bothered by the lack of a plot, but since it’s a music revue I’ve never understood why – Smokey Joe’s Cafe doesn’t pretend to be anything more or less than bringing very talented singers/actors on stage to perform some great songs.

Smokey Joe's Cafe 3It’s certainly presented in top-notch theatrical form by Studio Tenn, with a marvelous neon-topped saloon set by Logan (who once again excels in costume design as well). His eye for details, down to a vintage jukebox and classic Tennessee-shaped license plates above the entrance, his inventive use of space and the vivid colors he employs make me think of the celebrated Tony Walton (those not familiar with him can, and should, click here for more information).

Smokey Joe's Cafe 4The cast is just as accomplished as the man that helms this show. “American Idol” finalist and Belmont University grad Melinda Doolittle has her own soulful style, but her command and versatility also bring to mind a heady mix of jazz-fuelled luminaries Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. “Saved” and “I’m a Woman” provide two of several examples in this show where her powerful and deep-rooted voice holds us in its oh-so-cool embrace. Her “You’re the Boss” duet with bass Harvey A Hubert is also terrific.

Smokey Joe's Cafe 5Amanda Sudano Ramirez and Abner Ramirez are professionally known as the pop duo JOHNNYSWIM. In Smokey Joe’s Cafe they’re awesome together – “Love Me/Don’t” is beautiful – and apart – she on the playful “Some Cats Don’t Know” and he on the shattering “I (Who Have Nothing),” to provide two examples.

Laura Matula, is there anything you can’t do? Her Miss Adelaide for Studio Tenn’s Guys and Dolls was Broadway-worthy, and she’s appeared in stage and cabaret settings around Nashville for some time now displaying her amazing vocal range and acting chops. Matula always delivers, whether it’s a ballad, novelty or other type of number.

Smokey Joe's Cafe 6Libby Hodges can belt it out with the best of them. My favorite was “Pearl’s a Singer” since it showcased Hodges’ storytelling ability as well as her crystal-clear vocal pipes.

Smokey Joe's Cafe 7John-Mark McGaha has such a glorious tenor sound and it’s put to good use in such songs as “On Broadway” and “Stand By Me.” Ryan Greenawalt provides great instruction in “Teach Me How to Shimmy” and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed “Spanish Harlem” as much as when Hubert sings it in this show.

Smokey Joe's Cafe 8Music Director/Conductor Stephen Kummer tickles the ivories while his fellow bandmates – saxophonist Jimmy Bowland, drummer Ron Krasinski, guitarist Dale Herr and bassist Alana Rocklin – provide their equally top-notch talents in the orchestra pit. Danny Northup’s sound makes sure voices and instruments reach the audience in perfect balance; Emily Tello provides some fun-loving choreography that falls under Stephen Moss’ atmospherically-appropriate lighting.

What a marvelous season kickoff for Studio Tenn. If Smokey Joe’s Cafe is any indication – and the company’s past history indicates it is – theatergoers have much to look forward to during 2012-13.

Smokey Joe's Cafe 9Studio Tenn Theatre Company presents Smokey Joe’s Cafe through Oct. 7 at the Franklin Theatre (419 Main. St.) Performances start at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets ($47.50-$57.50) and more information are available at

*Photos by ANTHONYMATULA courtesy Studio Tenn Theatre Company.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (