Puttin' on the Hits

A few years from now, an enterprising promoter is going to reap a considerable fortune repackaging the hits of, say, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Lyle Lovett. But the show won't be sold to American audiences by sending it out on the usual concert circuit. Nor will it seize its target market of forty-something fans via record stores or interactive-media outlets. Instead, if current trends mean anything, the carefully packaged production will have its start in the theater.

The producers who promote it will have, in part, the creative team of Smokey Joe's Cafe to thank for their eventual triumph. They will also owe a debt of gratitude to audiences such as the Buell Theatre's, which last week greeted the opening-night performance of this collection of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller songs with roars of approval. Most of all, however, theatrical producers can bank on future success in the Broadway arena by adhering to this musical's absolute rule: Forget about plot and character; music, choreography and design elements are paramount.

Nine talented song-and-dance specialists (Scott Beck, Kim Cea, Dwayne Clark, Eugene Fleming, Alltrinna Grayson, Mary Ann Hermanson, Jeffrey Polk, Reva Rice and Stephonne Smith), under the Tony-nominated direction of Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, take us through a cavalcade of forty chart-topping songs originally performed by pop-music icons such as the Coasters, the Drifters, Peggy Lee and, of course, Elvis Presley. With precise timing and nonstop energy, the hit parade begins with a robust version of "Neighborhood," followed by charming renditions of "Dance With Me" and "Kansas City." On opening night, the ensemble deftly changed costumes during seamless breaks between songs and quickly won the devoted attention of an audience eager to cheer, clap and sing along to their favorite tunes of yesteryear.

Unencumbered by the demands of telling a well-acted story that finds full emotional expression through song, the production instead relies on the magnetic qualities of each actor's personality and physical talents to drive the action forward before a backdrop of nostalgic album-cover art. It's occasionally a winning combination: When a dozen neon marquees lit up the stage in preparation for a rollicking "On Broadway," and four performers in suits of silver matte material and sunglasses strode toward the audience, it served as a cue for spectators to whoop and holler, championing an evening that never promised to be more than good songs staged for good times.

Yes, Elvis and his blue suede shoes were sighted ("Jailhouse Rock"), and favorites such as "Hound Dog" and "Stand By Me" seemed destined to compel the near-capacity gallery to rise to its feet in what has become Denver's habitual response to an adequately performed road show. However, the greatest outpouring of affection was reserved for that moment in the spectacle that good-naturedly pits the sexes against each other. As the four female cast members belted out "I'm a Woman" to partisan acclaim from their distaff counterparts in the house, the five men sat dumbfounded at their cafe tables, enduring with blank faces the longest ovation of the evening. Their sung response, "There Goes My Baby," was both funny and appropriate. Still, the audience seemed content to abandon any expectation of watching a musical fable in favor of enjoying what might be billed as a "revusical."

But why did the raucous crowd immediately fall silent during moments in the show that deviated from the theme of a living jukebox? When "Spanish Harlem" was sung and danced by Fleming and Rice, spectators sat transfixed by a welcome peculiarity in the evening's entertainment--a believable, sustainable relationship between two characters. Likewise, when three headless zoot suits danced a soft shoe during "Shoppin' for Clothes," the crowd was no longer a bunch of concert devotees blindly cheering but an audience keenly attuned to the theater and its unique potential for human communion.

Long after the tunes in Smokey Joe's fade from memory (many of them are certain not to survive even the shortest trip home from the Buell) and the cute antics of a prodigiously gifted cast lose their luster in the cold light of the next morning's drudgeries, the show will be recalled as entertaining, though rarely enlightening. Two hours of exhilaration do not translate into even a moment of real exaltation, and the brief, hushed segments of theatrical reality that have managed to survive in the production remind us of something that might prove to be as annoying to a future producer as it is disturbing to a contemporary playgoer: There just might be something to that character and story thing after all.

Smokey Joe's Cafe, through September 21 at the Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

 
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