These songs have remained so loved that in the mid-'90s they were shaped into a nifty little revue called Smokey Joe's Cafe, a show that, like its music, became so popular it eventually earned notoriety as one of the longest-running revues ever featured on the Great White Way. Without dialogue, a story or even much of a set, the revue is perfect for the postage stamp-size stage at the Great Caruso Dinner Theater, which usually does a good job of finding some of Houston's best singing talent.
In this production, many of the performers come from Sam Houston State University, where director Jonathan Charles first developed the show with the help of Laura Avery, the musical director. As a result, it feels very collegiate. The performers are young, attractive and extremely eager to please -- in the short break between the afternoon and evening show, many stood in the lobby cheerfully schmoozing with the audience. But they're also scrubbed so clean of complexity, personality and sexuality (the kind that should make "Teach Me How to Shimmy" or "I'm a Woman" burn up the stage), they often seem like nothing more than a monolith of smiling youth.
A lot of the problem has to do with Charles's direction and choreography. No one in this cast appears to be a true dancer. And yet the women are often asked to grind their pelvises and fling their arms in the air in moves that look like a cross between cheerleading and pole dancing -- in fact, there's a pole on stage that more than one woman wiggles against. The sexuality on display here is too predictable and manufactured. To make matters worse, they're dressed in an unbecoming array of spandex and satin. Bellies, thighs and rear ends are all featured in ways that no young and attractive woman should have to endure.
The men suffer mostly from too much enthusiasm. They grin on stage as though their lives depended on it. At no time is there any real chemistry between a male and female singer, though there are several love songs throughout the show. One of the worst moments in the production comes during an unintentionally campy version of "I (Who Have Nothing)." The song is intended to be dramatic, but this version is so over the top with histrionics, it had several people smiling with embarrassment behind their hands at the May 20 performance.
For all this show's weaknesses, there are a few truly terrific moments. Onyinyechi Nwachukwu's slow and rhythmic "Hound Dog" slides across the stage with unexpected passion. In her horn-rimmed glasses, she is the closest thing this revue has to a sensual singer. And Kristen Dowdy does two delicious versions of "Fools Fall in Love." There is something in her quirky voice, the way it moves from honey-dark to cherry-sweet in a single note, that is almost worth sitting through the whole show for.
Of course, the whole dinner-theater experience sets this production apart from anything else in town. The Great Caruso offers time to enjoy the people you came with. There is a relaxed ease to the experience, and plenty of food and drink. All of which makes it easier to stomach a show featuring inexperienced college kids.