“Smokey Joe’s Café” – a sweet and savory musical journey to yesterday


The longest-running musical revue in Broadway history, “Smokey Joe’s Café,” is making its Drury Lane debut in Oakbrook Terrace. It’s a high-energy song-and-dance production that looks nostalgically upon a bygone era and infuses it with soulful longing and a few belly laughs. The show opened on Broadway in 1995 and played more than 2,000 performances before closing in 2000.

Justin Keyes, Chris Sams, Will Skip and Tyrone L. Robinson in "Smokey Joe's Café" at Drury Lane. Photo by Brett Beiner
Justin Keyes, Chris Sams, Will Skrip and Tyrone L. Robinson in “Smokey Joe’s Café” at Drury Lane. Photo by Brett Beinera

Drury Lane’s rendition, directed and choreographed by Tony Award-nominated Marcia Milgrom Dodge, is staged within Chicago’s historic Maxwell Street Market in the late 1950s. The set design by Kevin Depinet depicts a gritty urban streetscape below the elevated train tracks; it is lined with auto-repair and second-hand shops, fire escape, worn street signs and, of course, Smokey Joe’s Café.

The dreams and realities of the neighborhood denizens are revealed via 39 pop standards and jukebox hits from the extensive catalog of legendary duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. There’s no dialog, but none is needed.

A superbly talented cast plays multiple and various roles. Among them are a street performer, auto mechanic, soldier home on leave, homeless guy, waitress and hustler—each with a story to croon. They’re all such standouts, as singers and dancers, it’s too hard to play favorites. Maybe it’s the 1954 Plymouth Belvedere that rolls in during the second act.

The male ensemble of Justin Keyes, Sean Blake, Tyrone L. Robinson, Chris Sams and Will Skrip is strong and sexy. Robinson’s facial expressions are hilarious.

The female ensemble, Carrie Abernathy, Donica Lynn, Meghan Murphy and Amy Orman, is soulful and deep. Lynn’s impressive range is from gospel to scat and Meghan Murphy is a powerhouse torch artist.

Orman, also the dance captain of the show, is heaps of fun and red fringe in “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” but her crystal-clear vocals shine in her wistful solo “Falling.” We wish we could have heard more from her. Oh, and she roller skates, too.

The cast is accompanied by a quintet of terrific onstage musicians. Dubbed the Maxwell Street Band the musicians entertain and keep the show on pace.

A family-friendly playlist that includes “Kansas City,” “Hound Dog” and “Fools Fall in Love” repeatedly has audiences bouncing in their seats. And the final number, “Stand by Me,” is a powerful, heart-warming victory for all.

You still have time to see “Smokey Joe’s Café,” but make a date soon. The show closes Oct. 23.

DETAILS: “Smokey Joe’s Café” is at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace through Oct. 23. For tickets and other information, call 630-530-0111 or visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.

By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

(Pamela Dittmer McKuen  is an independent journalist and author who specializes in home, architecture, fashion and travel. Her bylines have appeared in the Chicago Tribune plus dozens of consumer, trade, association, corporate and collegiate publications. Visit her travel blog at: www.allthewriteplaces.com)