Chicago Theatre Review
In the Neighborhood
Smokey Joe’s Cafe
If you’re looking for a bargain that offers more bang for your entertainment buck, this is the perfect show. Featuring no less than 39 of the hundreds of pop standards penned by the renowned songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, guest director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge (Broadway’s “Ragtime,” among others) has assembled a stellar cast of triple threats who fill the stage with their talent. This is a pleasure-packed journey down memory lane for most theatergoers; for younger audiences, possibly unfamiliar with this duo’s work, they’re sure to soon become the songwriters’ newest fans.
Heralded as Broadway’s longest-running musical revue, this show, featuring two hours of contagious, toe-tapping tunes, has been produced all over the country since its 1995 Broadway debut. It was seen in a terrific, intimate production by Theo Ubique, just four years ago. This new, Chicago-oriented production is bigger, splashier and represented by the kind of Equity professional talent that makes each and every song in this revue a hit worthy of its own standing ovation.
The ladies in this production are played by an incomparable quartet of Chicago talent. Donica Lynn, recently seen opposite Andre de Shields in his “Confessions of a P.I.M.P.,” as well as in jaw-dropping performances in recent productions of “Dreamgirls” and “Hairspray,” is sassy, soulful and electrifying as Willie Mae, the Cafe Proprietor. She enchants with “Dance With Me,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “Hound Dog” and brings down the house with her raucous revival meeting rendition of “Saved.” Gorgeous, auburn-haired Meghan Murphy, so delightful in “Hazel” and sexy in “City of Angels” and “Tommy,” rips the roof off the Oakbrook venue with her huge, bluesy vocals and sensuous moves. Ms. Murphy blazes through the evening as Ruth, the Maxwell Street Dweller, with songs like “I Keep Forgettin’,”Pearl’s a Singer” and in an unforgettable mashup with Sean Blake, “Love Me” and “Don’t.” Every musical moment is a scene from the heart.
Lovely Carrie Abernathy, a powerhouse performer in several Black Ensemble Theatre productions, as well as memorably starring in a local production of “The Color Purple,” is Pearl, the Street Performer. Most often dressed in ragged gowns and coats, Ms. Abernathy dazzles with songs like “Don Juan,” “You’re the Boss” and “Some Cats Know.” And, last but not least, Amy Orman is Annette, the pretty, young rollerskating Waitress, who charms everyone with her twangy “Falling,” while shaking the fringe off her tiny red dress in “Teach Me How to Shimmy.” All four ladies let loose and absolutely wail in their sultry version of, “I’m a Woman, (W.O.M.A.N.)”
The five male ensemble members are each individual standouts, but blend beautifully in the close harmonies of their group numbers. Sean Blake, who plays Sonny, the Hustler, has been seen on multiple area stages, as well as around the country in National Tours. Possessing a gorgeous, velvet-coated voice and some very smooth moves, he leaves his mark with songs like “There Goes My Baby,” “Love Potion #9” and, along with his costars, “Stand By Me.” Remembered for his touching performances as Tony in “West Side Story,” in Aurora, as well as Prince Eric in CST’s “Little Mermaid,” Will Skrip brings his lush voice and boyish demeanor to Rod, the College Kid in this production. With his Brylcreemed hair, tight jeans and penny loafers, Skrip is the epitome of the 1950’s Teen Angel. Whether crooning hits like “Kansas City,” with Donica and Meghan, gyrating like Elvis atop a vintage jalopy in “Jailhouse Rock” or harmonizing with his buddies in “Ruby Baby,” Mr. Skrip is sensational.
He’s matched by New York’s Justin Keyes as Little Walter the Bum, whose high notes and intricate dance moves are anything but little. Justin impresses with numbers like “Searchin’,” “D.W. Washburn” and “Treat Me Nice.” He’s hilarious while “Shoppin’ for Clothes,” yet sadly moving when professing his love in “I (Who Have Nothing).” Chris Sams is the rubber-jointed dancer, as Cornelius, the Soldier Boy. He lends his talent to every group number, while standing out in solo performances, like his ballad, “Spanish Harlem.” And, last but not least, Tyrone L. Robinson, fresh off National Tours of “Book of Mormon” and “The Lion King,” plays Doc, the Mechanic. Providing the bass notes in every group number, Tyrone is very funny in novelty numbers, “Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak” and “Little Egypt.” All five men excel with their harmonic deliveries of “Young Blood,” “Keep on Rollin’” and a fantastic version of “Poison Ivy.” But the song that had everyone in the audience rocking in their seats was the quintet’s stirring rendition of “On Broadway.”
Ms. Dodge’s concept is to bring this revue home to the Windy City in a special way. Bookended by “The Neighborhood,” which opens and closes the show, the director/choreographer realizes that Chicago is nothing, if not a collection of tight-knit communities, or neighborhoods. She sees Chicago for what it is: a melting pot of many cultures, which is represented in this diverse cast. While there’s no plot, tiny stories emerge as relationships unfold. Ms. Dodge sees each song as a memory, like a treasured snapshot from a photo album. Scenic designer Kevin Depinet has visually represented this concept through his theatrical representation of old Maxwell Street, with its urban markets and juke joints, like Smokey Joe’s. Depinet has designed a multilevel environment, complete with tenement ladders and landings, an L track roaring overhead and a comfy space for the onstage street band. Chris Sargent, as Norty, is the Conductor and keyboardist, directing his talented foursome, which includes King (Alex Beltran, on saxophone), T-Bone (Alex Beltran, on guitar), J.J. (Chuck Webb, on bass) and Fontana (Ben Johnson, on percussion). Paul Miller’s lighting is both atmospheric and theatrical, while Sully Ratke’s terrific costume creations both depict the period while meshing beautifully with Claire Moores’ character-defining wig and hair designs.
This wonderful evening of music and memories is a cool way to enjoy these last warm Summer nights. Most audience members will revel in the nostalgia created by hearing some of their favorite songs from the 50’s and 60’s, and every theatergoer will find it hard to resist the urge to stay in his seat while enjoying such rousing hits as “Yakety Yak,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Poison Ivy” and “I’m a Woman.” With the amount of unbridled talent found rockin’ on this stage, Drury Lane has once again shown itself to be a leader among Chicagoland’s professional entertainment, in a production that should not be missed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 1-October 23 by Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-530-0111 or TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or by going to www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com