Maurice Verrett Johnson, Akron Watson, Walter Lee and Calvin S. Roberts blend their voices in Smokey Joe's Cafe at WaterTower Theatre.
Maurice Verrett Johnson, Akron Watson, Walter Lee and Calvin S. Roberts blend their voices in Smokey Joe's Cafe at WaterTower Theatre.
Mark Oristano

Smokey But No Fire at WaterTower Theatre, While Amphibian's Understudy Underwhelms

Someday musical theater will unplug the jukebox and come up with new tunes. Just not anytime soon. Not as long as audiences are still paying to see shows patched together from the hits of yesteryear.

Mamma Mia! does ABBA. Rock of Ages is wrapped around songs of 1980s "hair bands" and glam metal. Million Dollar Quartet gives us Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash in a fictional recording session. Movin' Out sets a Twyla Tharp dance jam to two hours of Billy Joel tunes. There are jukebox musicals dedicated to disco (Xanadu and Priscilla Queen of the Desert), doo wop (Forever Plaid), Queen (We Will Rock You) and the Beach Boys (Good Vibrations). Dallas Summer Musicals has brought Rain: The Beatles Experience here twice in recent years.

Only one jukebox show stands above the others as a perfect marriage of pop music and musical comedy: Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Its second national Broadway tour just wrapped a month-long run with the Lexus Broadway Series at the Winspear Opera House. With its witty book, clever storytelling and a brilliantly arranged score that builds to a mini-concert, it's the show that makes the rest look like cheap late-night infomercials by comparison.


Smokey Joe's Cafe

Smokey Joe's Cafe

Continues through August 12 at WaterTower Theatre, Addison. Call 972-450-6232.

The Understudy

Continues through August 5 at Amphibian Theatre, Fort Worth. Call 817-923-3012.

Smokey Joe's Café, now playing at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, was one of the first hit Broadway jukebox revues of the 1990s. With a 39-song set list, it celebrates the catalogue of two prolific mid-century American songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. You'll know the melodies and most of the words to their chart toppers: "Hound Dog," "Poison Ivy," "Stand by Me," "Yakety Yak," "Kansas City," "On Broadway," "I'm a Woman," "Love Potion No. 9," "Jailhouse Rock" and "I (Who Have Nothing)." These are American standards of the rock and roll era, pop-music classics bastardized for decades since on TV commercials, movie soundtracks and karaoke nights.

For some, a show like this is a night in nostalgia heaven. For others (like me), it's akin to sitting through two hours of well-lit American Idol auditions. You've heard all these familiar numbers before, too many times, performed better and worse. But, oh, when will it be over?

With no narrative, no dialogue, no linking material or characters to cling to, Smokey Joe's Café, directed at WaterTower by Terry Martin, sometimes feels like a fluffy nightclub act. Other times it's bad cruise-ship entertainment. Performed on a stage decorated like WaterTower's annual holiday musical (same floating circles of color, but no Christmas trees), it pretends to have a storyline where there is none. Singers hug and kiss at the end of love ballads. They sing with anger on "Pearl's a Singer" and act drunk on "D.W. Washburn." There's some spirited dancing during "Saved" that's pretty lively. (All the choreography by John de los Santos is fresh and tight.) At the finale, everybody strolls onstage with sad smiles, and they hug like mourners at the wake of somebody's dead grandma. Awkward.

A couple of WaterTower's performers — Walter Lee and Chimberly Byrom Carter — add decent comedic flair to their solos. Lee and Carter also have kick-ass singing voices and kick up the energy whenever they're onstage. Others in the cast either aren't up to the requirements of the music (Steve Barcus is a terribly stiff Elvis) or they over-sing so strenuously it's just unpleasant (when Laura Lites appears, cover your ears or risk hearing loss). The rest — Akron Watson, Courtney Sikora, Calvin S. Roberts, Maurice Verrett Johnson, Feleceia Benton — are fine, just not spectacular.

The sweetest blend of vocals is when Johnson, Watson, Lee and Roberts harmonize on "Keep on Rollin'" and "On Broadway." The guys also look terrific in their crisp tuxedos. Costumer Michael Robinson condemns the ladies in the cast to unflattering pedal pushers and boxy bridesmaids' dresses.

One tiny revelation came out of reviewing a night of Leiber and Stoller tunes. Their 1962 song "I Keep Forgettin' (You Don't Love Me No More)" will remind you of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know." The original is much less annoying.

Theresa Rebeck is a magical writer. That is, she's managed to create the illusion that she's an Important American Playwright. With one mediocre play after another, she's proven she's not the next Albee or Miller — not even the next Neil Simon or Labute.

But all the big theaters do her stuff and she's always got another script cooking for Broadway. This fall Rebeck's latest, Dead Accounts, opens on Broadway co-starring Katie Holmes, marking the actress' return to the stage following seven years' bondage to the galactic warlord Xenu. This will get Big Deal coverage. Count on it.

If Holmes were ever to miss a performance (you never know what that mean-eyed moppet Suri might pull), another actress, one without a famous name or movie credits, will be at the ready to take her place. Rebeck's earlier play, The Understudy, attempts to find comedy in what it means to be the also-ran, the benchwarmer, for a star in a hit Broadway drama.

Now running at Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage, in a small production directed by René Moreno in which the three actors have no understudies, the play offers a mildly amusing glimpse backstage at the pecking order of theater professionals. At the top is the Star (unseen in the play but let's assume he's Bruce Willis). Below him is the second lead, a popular action movie he-man played by Carman Lacivita (a Lou Diamond Phillips lookalike) who is trying to gain respect for his acting by doing serious material. He's been called in to rehearse with his new understudy, played by Chuck Huber, a no-name actor happy to earn a paycheck standing by for the stars of a three-hour Kafka tragedy. (Imagining audiences would pay top dollar to see a play by Franz Kafka may be Rebeck's wildest flight of fancy yet.)

A harried stage manager (Sarah Koestner) has to deal with the actors' clashing egos and the wandering attentions of "Laura," the spaced-out chick in the light booth, as she struggles to get one run-through done before curtain time.

Were it not for a wonderfully relaxed performance by Huber, The Understudy would be a study in how to underwhelm the audience with a half-baked premise. But in his charming, cheeky asides to the audience, Huber draws us over to his character's point of view. Acting is a tough game, and sometimes the guys who look good yelling "Get in the truck!" in a movie about a freak tornado get the bucks, while the ones who can bring a Kafka play to life get the shaft. That's what the understudy learns. That's Rebeck's message, as if this were a major revelation to anyone.

Koestner is overly shrill as the stage manager, who once was involved romantically with the unknown actor. The way she shrieks and stomps around, it's easy to understand why he dumped her before the wedding. She's a harpy in a headset.

And yes, Rebeck does write faux Kafka dialogue for the play-within-the play sequences. It's as bad as you think it might be. A hit play by Kafka. Real funny, Rebeck, real funny.


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