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Blues, rock and ballads fill the air at 'Smokey Joe's Cafe'

"Smokey Joe's Café" is one of those places that ask you to just sit down and let yourself be carried away. Whether the music evokes the warm embrace of memory or is a fresh introduction to some American classics, MusicalFare's latest production is designed to showcase the jukebox talents of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with very little in the way of distraction.

The chart-topping songwriters were at their peak during the era of the three-minute single, which means nearly 40 songs can be packed into less than two hours run time, including intermission. If you don't remember "I Keep Forgettin'", don't worry, because "On Broadway" is right around the corner.

The strength of the show is in the deep dive it takes into the Leiber & Stoller catalog, a plunge that showcases their range and versatility. You've never heard a bluesier "Hound Dog" than the one sung by Zoe Scruggs, and you've never seen such a silly, twirly "Little Egypt" as we get from these boys.

MusicalFare Theatre's production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," a musical revue by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, runs Feb. 7 to March 11.

As the hits just keep on coming, the show relies heavily on its cast of nine to give the songs context, since there is no script, and even on opening night the performers were on target and in sync. Brian Brown and Lorenzo Shawn Parnell are fresh new voices at MusicalFare and welcome additions. Ben Michael Moran let his affection for "Smokey Joe's" show in every gesture and expression, and Dudney Joseph Jr. and veteran Marc Sacco were solid throughout.

Nicole Marrale Cimato and Michele Marie Roberts showed off their vocal and comic chops. And Victoria Perez couldn't help but own the stage when she took the lead.

After a dozen numbers or so, you start to realize a couple of things. First, Lieber & Stoller did really well writing songs about people who weren't very lucky in love ("Fools Fall in Love," "Searchin'," Trouble").

And second, as you start to realize how many pop music classics they get credit for, you wish there was a little more about them in the show. I think about how "Motown: the Musical" gave a window into the hard work and high drama that went into Berry Gordy's little record company, and wonder what the music world was like for Lieber & Stoller.

It also would be grand to have more than a peek at the musicians playing behind the scrim: saxman Jim Runfola on reeds, Rodney Harper on drums, Larry Albert on guitar, Dave Siegfried playing bass and music director Theresa Quinn on piano.

Nevertheless, there were some standout pieces, including a righteous rendition of "D.W. Washburn" and a four-woman march for "I Am Woman." "Spanish Harlem" always is worth another go-round and their "Pearl's a Singer" is a gem.

As an energetic musical revue, with director John Fredo getting the most out of his singers and the singers giving their all to every song, "Smokey Joe's" is a smokin' success.

Theater review

"Smokey Joe's Cafe"

3 stars (out of 4)

Presented by Musicalfare, on the Daeman College campus, 4380 Main St., Amherst, through March 11. Tickets are $44. Visit musicalfare.com.

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