‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ is playing through June 9 at the Ogunquit Playhouse. COURTESY PHOTO

Ogunquit Playhouse opened its 86th season on May 16 with a deliciously revamped production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller,”  breathing new life into Broadway’s longest-running musical revue and securing its legacy for generations to come. If you’ve seen “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” before, GO AGAIN because you haven’t seen this “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”

This “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” has some original vocal arrangements by Chapman Roberts, new orchestrations by Steve Margoshes and music supervisor Sonny Paladino, contemporary dance moves and new interpretations of old tunes, all performed by a young, energetic and effervescent cast of nine with new attitudes, fun shtick and engaging character development.

This Smokey Joe’s Cafe is directed and choreographed by Emmy Award-winner and Tony Award-nominee Joshua Bergasse who wanted to build a new production specifically for a unique and astounding new cast. With numerous Broadway and television credits, Bergasse easily succeeds in moving the ensemble with clean, fresh, modern moves. Intoxicating and impressive!

The cast is an unsuspecting collection of diversely-talented Broadway and off-Broadway powerhouse performers who work exquisitely well together and who seem to recognize the stellar opportunities this show could yield:  Dwayne Cooper (“Motown,” “Hairspray,” “Showboat,” “Seussical The Musical”), Emma Degerstedt (“Desperate Measures,” TV credits), John Edwards (“Jersey Boys,” “Hairspray), Dionne D. Figgins (“Hot Feet,” “Memphis,” “Leap of Faith,” “Motown”), Nicole Vanessa Ortiz (“Spamilton”), Kyle Taylor Parker (“Kinky Boots,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live”), Jelani Remy (Simba in “The Lion King”), Max Sangerman (“The Lightning Thief,” “Blue Man Group”), and Alysha Umphress (“On The Town,” “American Idiot,” “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert”).  All are superb, but Cooper and Miss Ortiz (“it pays to wait on God”) organically attain unrivaled performance distinction.

This “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” introduces a new character: The Cafe itself, at the junction of Memory Lane and Milestone Boulevard, where friends would come together to hang out, enjoy life and love, sing and dance, and share the emotions and tales embodied in the words of the sentimental songs that Leiber & Stoller wrote.  Thanks to a killer set designed by Beowulf Boritt, this “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is a physical place you can enjoy visually and aesthetically, and feel like you’re hanging out with the rest of your friends.

This “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” re-packages and re-launches the works of legendary Hall of Fame songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller into a perfect template that easily establishes this property among similar successful musical-themed shows “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Heartbreak Hotel” (previously seen at the Playhouse) and “Jersey Boys” (coming this fall). 


This “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” will likely catapult its gifted songwriters, stunning cast, and creative staff into a level of unprecedented career development and sentimental superiority for decades. Make no mistake about it — the Leiber & Stoller catalogue is enviable — rich, endless, timeless, entertaining, universal and diverse. 

The songs are 100 percent recognizable and revered: “On Broadway,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog” (Big Mama Thornton style), “Love Potion #9,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Ruby Ruby,” “Young Blood,” “Poison Ivy,” “Don Juan,” “Fools Fall In Love,” “Searchin,’” “Kansas City,” “Falling,” “I Who Have Nothing,” “Pearl’s A Singer,” “I’m A Woman,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Stand By Me” and many more … hits packed into 90 sizzling minutes (no intermission).

These are the songs that played on radios everywhere, that defined daily living and boundless dreams.  These are the songs that helped frame and color the lives of young Americans growing up in the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s, the songs that brought levity, hope, healing, even distraction, to a society riddled with civil, political and cultural unrest.  These are the songs that shaped the music industry and helped change the world … a phenomenon that might never be repeated.

The Leiber-Stoller works reached across many genres — soul, rhythm & blues, rock ‘n roll, country, jazz, gospel. Their songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Ben E. King, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Bill Haley and the Comets, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Tom Jones, Edith Piaf, Bobby Darin, Chet Atkins, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, BB. King and Otis Redding, to name a few.

This “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is a non-stop celebration of memories and milestones, a tribute to great talent, a party hosted by a fabulous cast. Everyone of all ages and musical tastes is invited.

On opening night, just when the last encore hit its final downbeat, the audience enjoyed a bonus treat when Executive Artistic Director Bradford Kenney escorted Mr. Mike Stoller to the stage for some heartfelt words of thanks and reflection. The 85-year-old icon expressed his thanks to all those involved and wished that his creative partner, who passed away in 2011, could have experienced the wonderful show. An emotional Stoller related how he still reaches for the phone to call his friend. “Jerry,” he said looking up to the heavens, “I wish you could’ve seen the great show tonight. Lots of good things going on. ‘Stand By Me’ is going to be played at the Royal Wedding, we’re getting a national jazz award for ‘Kansas City’ and we had a great opening night here in Ogunquit.” … “Ogunquit, Jerry.” … “O-g-u-n-q-u-i-t … it’s somewhere in Maine, and they sure do love us.”  A genuine class act!

Next stop for this “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is an off-Broadway run at Stage 42 in NYC, so be sure to catch it here in Maine before it closes on June 9. For tickets and more information, visit the website www.ogunquitplayhouse.org or call 646-5511.

— Louis Philippe is a reviewer for the Journal Tribune.

Comments are not available on this story.