Encore Michigan

Encore Musical Theatre rocks it’s return with ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’

Review September 24, 2021 Encore Staff

DEXTER, Mich.–Sometimes everything about a show seems just right. This is one of those times.

The Encore Musical Theatre springs back to life this weekend in a new space here, with exactly the right show–Smokey Joe’s Café– to celebrate the return of live theatre after the pandemic-driven hiatus we have endured for 18 long months.

Smokey Joe’s is a revue of the songs created by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, a writing team that has given the world one of the great catalogs of songs since humans first started singing around campfires–“Neighborhood,” “Dance With Me,” Fools Fall in Love,” “Poison Ivy,” “Charlie Brown,” “Stand By Me,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Spanish Harlem,” and so much more.

Director Dan Cooney, beaming at the season opener in new space that Encore acquired and has been renovating via a significant capital campaign, assembled a superb cast of nine actors to act, dance and sing the incredible 36 numbers. Even with that dizzying number of songs, the run time, with no Intermission, was about 1:30 as some songs are sampled rather performed in their entirety.

Jason Briggs, Jordyn Davis, Bryana Hall, Dan Johnson, Chris Joseph, David Magumba, Gayle E. Martin, Tyler J. Messinger and Sarah B. Stevens work to deliver the songs with loving style and fabulous stage energy amidst a tremendous set designed by Sarah Tanner–a multi-level backdrop adorned with a pastiche of signs and period props from the 1960s, which was the writing team’s heyday.

There is no dialogue in the revue. The actors just transition from one song to the next, giving each one it’s own presentation and flavor, with the players taking turns and changing partners along the way.

It’s difficult to single out performances in this ensemble, but Jason Briggs and Gayle E. Martin both own, illuminate and energize whatever space they inhabit in their different songs. Briggs, for example, delivers a heartfelt Spanish Harlem, and he and Martin together bring “Dance With Me” to life in a way that makes you want to join them on stage. Briggs, Johnson, Joseph and Magumba hilariously combine on novelty song “Poison Ivy.” The ladies–Stevens, Hall and Davis take turns vamping and belting the time-machine song “I’m a woman.” The strong voices here make the solos and spotlighted song turns backed by the ensemble work superbly–Davis’s “Falling,” Hall’s “Some Cats Know,” Johnson’s “Loving You,” Messinger’s “Jailhouse Rock,” and a duet of “Love Me/Don’t” with Joseph and Stevens.

Music Director Tyler Driskill

Though the songs are the star of this revue, the show doesn’t work without lively choreography by Gerry McIntyre. One of the criticisms of the original Broadway production was that there was too much “stand and sing” by the actors. Not so here. McIntyre has designed a cadence and choreography that is funny, energetic and keeps the music bouncing and brisk with pauses in the energy when it works for the song–as in Magumba’s “I Who Have Nothing.” Having seen the original, the longest running revue on Broadway, McIntyre’s choreography is actually better.

Music Director Tyler Driskill leads a five-person music combo with him on keyboard. And Driskill even takes a turn singing while the cast is off-stage taking a brief breather and hydration break. Ryan Mackenzie Lewis is Associate Music Director. Jake Jedele is Technical Director and Lighting Designer. The sound design in Encore’s new space worked flawlessly. Chris Goosman is sound designer, while Meg Berg is technician on performance nights. Anne Donevan is props master. Kate VanHorn is set painter.

Costume changes, designed by Sharon Larkey Urick, work hand in hand with the choreography choices, especially when the men join in an ensemble piece bringing to mind groups like the Temptations and The Drifters, on a song like “There Goes My Baby.”

The sound design in Encore’s new space worked flawlessly. Chris Goosman is sound designer, while Meg Berg is technician on performance nights. Anne Donevan is props master. Kate VanHorn is set painter.

Encore has graduated from its black box space and moved into a larger building with far more seating, and a balcony. The space is to serve not only as a theatre, but a teaching academy for young people who are tracked to study theatre at the university level. There is a significant upgrade to the lobby. It’s not hard to see how the company is going to monetize the space not only with it’s own productions, but small touring shows like one teased in the opening speech performed by actor Fred Grandy (Love Boat), as well as private events.

Encore Musical Theatre was always the brightest spot in the small downtown of Dexter. But this new space really makes it the gem of the town.

It’s heartening to see how this company has graduated and moved up in the world. With all the choices there are to bring a revue this deep with fan-favorite songs to life, the best choice was the first one–to choose this happy, funny, delightful show as the first one in its new home.

Every patron was masked, but they could hardly contain the smiles and tears of joy behind them.

Week of 10/18/2021

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