Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.
(l-r: Justin Keyes, Chris Sams, Tyrone L. Robinson, Will Skrip, and Sean Blake. Photo by Brett Beiner)
Turning west on Maxwell and then north on Halsted Street, a neighborhood miraculously transforms into street storefronts, with crooners and music lovers hugging the corners as shoppers moved tightly up and down the market. Shopping and bopping to the sounds that engulfed the Maxwell Street Market is an integral part of Chicago’s history and SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE delivers a part of this history and so much more.
SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE is a musical revue filled with nostalgia, illuminated through a larger than life set that will transport the audience of Drury Lane Theater to a moment in time filled with good music. Internationally-acclaimed Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge magnetically bridges the historical Maxwell Street of Chicago with the timeless music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Set Designer Kevin Depinet has an artful eye to detail, as the stunning set of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE looms out in tiered layers of history cut perfectly so to captivate the eye of its onlookers. The very essence of the Market protrudes from the stage framed by an organic life-size replica of Chicago’s “L”, which is embellished by crammed-in vendors, adjacent apartment complexes, a city’s bus, and the sounds of a live band embed directly into the scenery. I watched and listened as all of these textures elicited memories for audience members. I took my mother, who used the set design to take me through a quick walk down memory lane of her own memories of the infamous Market.
I watched how the music moved the people, as the majority of the audience members were from the music era. Each performer, unique in their skill set gave life and meaning to every song. However, Donica Lynn gave a dynamic performance from start to finish. Lynn’s musical talent is incredible. She can flutter a note to the highest register, while working every corner of a stage with an unbelievable amount of breath control. Her stage presence is undeniable. In the ending scene of Act One, Lynn appeared from the audience, pranced up on stage and then took the entire Drury Lane Theater to church with “Saved.” I listened with chills, while people from the audience cheered her on. Lynn was not the only singer and performer who left everything to offer on stage, as Meghan Murphy gave us all kinds of attitude with her sultry voice and fierce persona. With ease, Murphy jolts memories of love gone wrong or love gone all the way right, as her voice instantly makes one emote all things relationship.
I must also highlight the musical talent of Chris Sams, the man with the lady killer vocals. Sams’ hypnotic voice and crisp deep tone, often fluctuated between an operatic sound to the familiar sounds of pop and soul music. There was also something special about the honesty behind Sean Blake’s voice. Blake has a very candid onstage personality. As an actor, Blake gave the audience some of the musical’s funniest moments. He has a special ability to capture the innocence behind the music of Leiber and Stoller, as he did with “Love Me/Don’t.”
All of the singers gave stellar performances; Justin Keyes, Will Skrip, Carrie Abernathy, Amy Orman, and Tyrone L. Robinson, each provided a special ingredient to the cast of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE. I do want to caution people this is a musical revue, there is no threading storyline, something I would’ve personally preferred, but the dynamic set design and beyond stellar cast of singers makes up for the absence of some form of narrative centered around the music.
With that being said, SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE at Drury Lane Theater is well worth attending. The show delivers non-stop hits of timeless music paired with a charismatic band and a talented cast of singers.