Review: Riverside Makes Magic with SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE

From left: Ian Coulter-Buford, Jamari Johnson Williams, Andre Jordan, Schyler Conaway in Riverside Theatre’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE. Photo by Garett Schiefer

Brevard Culture Theatre Critic

The jukebox is smokin’ at Riverside Theatre with its production of the nostalgic music revue, “Smokey Joe’s Café.”

Conceived in 1995 by Stephen Helper, Jack Viertel, and Otis Sallid, “Smokey Joe’s Café” celebrates the music of lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller. Their tunes influenced American pop music with their crossover style in the 1950’s and 60’s by successfully introducing rhythm and blues to audiences of traditional pop music.

Director/choreographer DJ Salisbury’s fresh, fast-paced, and creative staging keeps the audience engaged and connected to each of the 40 musical numbers. Salisbury wisely divides these treasured hits into two acts…Baby Boomers need to catch their breath!

From left: Schyler Conaway, Ian Coulter-Buford, Jamari Johnson Williams, Andre Jordan, Gabriel Mudd in Riverside Theatre’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE
Photo credit: Garett Schiefer

Salisbury delivers a new and inventive look with the revue’s set design. With his gifted and accomplished scenic designer, James Dardenne, Salisbury works with the concept of a giant deconstructed jukebox of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Lighting designer Yael Lubetzky includes the pink, orange, purple and green neon lights found in the jukeboxes of that era. You can find a picture of the jukebox that was the model for this innovative set on the cover of the production’s program. The geometric glass pieces on the front of the jukebox become the large scenic units that move after each number into a new formation. The staircase represents the needle in the deconstructed jukebox, and the interesting, moveable circular structure that holds the musicians represents the turntable.

Every number in this revue brought back memories of life in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as the opening number, “Neighborhood” implies. Each member of the audience had their favorites and clapped and sang along with the wonderful ensemble. A favorite moment was when the men went into the audience at the start of act two with mics and got people to sing “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown” along with the cast.

The diverse cast of five men and four women delivers blockbuster solos, flawless harmonies, dance with precision and ease, and within their performances, become the characters astutely enacting their stories.

Alison Cusano, a powerful soulful singer, performs a particularly touching “Pearl’s a Singer.” Jayne Trinette showed everyone that a woman was always meant to sing “Hound Dog.”

From left: Summerisa Bell Stevens, Schyler Conaway, Alison Cusano in Riverside Theatre’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE. Photo credit: Garett Schiefer

Summerisa Bell Stevens has a memorable, two-minute vigorous shimmy in “Teach Me How to Shimmy” with Schyler Conaway, Andre Jordan, and Gabriel Mudd. She joins Ian Coulter in the beautiful “Spanish Harlem” and their elegant dance together was a special moment in the revue.

Khalifa White oozed sexuality in “Some Cats Know.” When she teamed with Jamari Johnson Williams to sing “You’re the Boss,” you could feel the sizzle.

From left: Summerisa Bell Stevens, Khalifa White in Riverside Theatre’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE. Photo by Garett Schiefer

Salisbury loves to have a few surprises in his productions, and this revue is no exception. All I will say is the word, “Magic!” Also, keep an eye out for some surprises when White sings “Don Juan,” and the men in the cast go “Shoppin’ For Clothes!”

This revue’s heart is in the Leiber and Stoller’s music and powerful rhythms. It keeps our hands clapping, our fingers snapping, and our feet dancing. Much praise to the amazing and rockin’ music director, Ann Shuttlesworth and her fabulous musicians Brandon Sturiale, Lee Appleman, Thomas Brinkley, Jason May, and Manny Moreira. So glad you get your moment downstage in act one.

The wonderful costumes and wigs taking us back in time are constructed by the costume and wig designer Kurt Alger and his staff. Sound designer Craig Beyrooti blends all those terrific voices and musical instruments.

And kudos to stage manager Mark Johnson, and assistant stage manager Kyle Atkins for keeping 40 different musical numbers on stage with everything they needed at the right moment!

“Smokey Joe’s Café” is a Baby Boomer bonanza of hits by Leiber and Stoller that for many of us, brings back memories of special moments in our lives.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” runs through Nov. 11 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach, FL. Tickets start at $35. Call 772-231-6990 or visit or click on their ad.

This is an edited version of Joan Taddie’s review running now on