The set up: Smokey Joe's Cafe is a quasi-romantic, nostalgic tour of some of the classics of songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. It has no plot or theme, but instead generates the flavor and feel of returning to visit a favorite bar of one's youth - except that the strong and melodic six-piece band here is better than a bar is likely to have, and the nine entertainers kick up more of a storm than the old neighborhood could provide.
The execution: Much of the credit goes to the distaff side, with Kenyatta Herring commanding the stage with a powerful presence and an outstanding voice. Her simple, quiet rendition of "Fools Fall in Love" is especially powerful. Sofia V. Mendez has a nice turn of phrase, and effectively sells the comic songs "Don Juan" and "Some Cats Know". Blythe Kirkwood is the blonde bombshell with a good voice and wonderful stage presence, and is a knockout in "Teach Me How to Shimmy" - especially in a silver tinsel mini-dress that seems to have a life of its own. Christina Stroup is a brunette beauty with a strong voice, but more gestures could add color to her vocal delivery.
The men team up as an ensemble, but also have their own chance to shine. Chioke Coreathers handles his solos well, and shows considerable acting skill in some amusing byplay with Kenyatta. Aaron Phillips projects appealing sincerity and does well in "Spanish Harlem" with Sofia. Damon Price has the best moves in the group. Mark Jackson works well with the others but seems a bit more casual, with a shade less passion. Cole Ryden is the only Caucasian among the men, and seems a bit too fresh-faced for the nightclub atmosphere - I wondered if he should have been carded - but he redeems himself in an exciting "Jailhouse Rock".
The second act, which has more solos, is considerably stronger than the first. There is a too-brief saxophone solo from Ray Gonzalez in the band - I would have liked to see more showcasing of the talented musicians. Piano was handled by Luke Kirkwood, who also served ably as musical director. The choreography by Lauren Dolk keeps the cast in fluid motion, without being especially inventive. The costumes by Tiffani Fuller are serviceable without any pretense to be more than that - except for the unforgettable tinsel dress. Guest director Dan O'Brien keeps the pace enthusiastically brisk. The verdict: Previous shows at Texas Rep such as Plaid Tidings had more sparkle and snap in the dancing, but that may build here as performances continue. This is mainstream entertainment, front and center, with little nuance or subtlety. It does what it's meant to do: Give us a good time without requiring much effort from us, and in this they succeed admirably.
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Through July 24, Texas Repertory Theatre,14243 Stuebner Airline Rd, 281-583-7573. -JJT