By Leah Dennison, For the Williamson Herald
Imagine you have the chance to attend the next Olympics. Even if you don't follow sports or know any of the athletes from Adam, you'd go. Why? Because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness firsthand a pinnacle of human ability.
The sheer athleticism of the singers in Studio Tenn’s “Smokey Joe’s Café”—the power, the skill, the endurance—is likewise astronomical. And this weekend is your last opportunity to experience it.
On stage through Sunday at the Franklin Theatre, “Smokey Joe's” will leave you in a fog—dizzied and dazzled by eight powerhouse vocalists. Melinda Doolittle, Abner and Amanda Ramirez, Laura Matula, Libby Hodges, Ryan Greenawalt, Harvey Hubert and John-Mark McGaha could be the strongest set of singers to ever perform Leiber and Stoller's timeless tunes.
A sensational start to a 2012-13 season stacked with classics (including “Twelve Angry Men,” “A Christmas Carol”, “Big River” and “My Fair Lady”), Studio Tenn’s “Smokey Joe’s” showcases some of the most beloved tunes in popular music history, made famous by Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, Tom Jones, Bobby Darin and others.
A musical revue, “Smokey Joe's” has a straightforward format: the eight players in varying combinations perform 39 iconic mid-century standards by songwriters Leiber and Stoller, including “Stand By Me,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion No. 9” and more.
There’s no dialogue or characters, and only a semblance of a storyline. But these things aren't missed when the whole show is one non-stop jaw-dropping performance after another, as is the case with Studio Tenn's production.
Furthermore, Emily Tello’s clever choreography and Artistic Director Matt Logan’s exquisite set and costumes provide plenty of visual interest.
There’s not a dull moment in the show, nor a weak link on the “Dream Team” of singers.
American Idol’s Melinda Doolittle exudes grace, grit, glamour, sass and soul in perfect proportions, at all the right moments. She is stunning – a goddess of song and stage.
Laura Matula, noted for her memorable Miss Adelaide in last year’s “Guys and Dolls,” returns with abundant personality. Her rendition of “Don Juan” in Act I flaunts her uncanny vocal versatility as she seamlessly shifts between playful pouting to all-out belting.
Williamson County’s hometown diva Libby Hodges is astonishing every time she opens her mouth. Her epic pipes especially impress in “Pearl’s A Singer” and "I Keep Forgetting."
Amanda Ramirez of JOHNNYSWIM glows most during her spellbinding renderings of “Some Cats Know” and “Love Me / Don’t,” a duet with husband Abner. Her silky, richly textured voice is captivating.
And the men match up.
Harvey Hubert’s bold, operatic baritone is lovely in his tender rendition of “Spanish Harlem”—and perfect at punctuating novelty numbers “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak.” His titillating duet with Doolittle, "You're The Boss" is among the show's many high points.
The exuberant Ryan Greenawalt gives a fresh take on “Jailhouse Rock,” “Ruby” and others. His retro-modern look hearkens to the beatniks of Leiber and Stoller’s heyday and the hipsters of today.
Abner Ramirez—the other half of JOHNNYSWIM—pulls out all the stops for a passionate, soul-stirring performance of “I (Who Have Nothing),” compelling me and others to our feet on opening night.
John-Mark McGaha sparkles throughout the show. His pure, soulful voice is haunting in "There Goes My Baby" and “Stand By Me," which quickly incited reverent finger-snapping throughout the auditorium.
Stephen Kummer's expert musical direction, matched with the diverse singing styles and emotive performances of these eight, showcases the truly timeless character of this music.
And every other element of the show boasts a “wow factor" of its own.
Artistic Director Matt Logan bestows a nostalgic glamour on the singers' wardrobe, as well as the company's most elaborate set yet: the centerpiece of the stage is a full and functioning bar that audience members can patronize before the show and between acts.
The immersive "neighborhood bar" ambiance fed patrons' engagement on opening night; without reservation, the audience whooped and hollered, cheering on their stars.
Amid the applause, I marveled that these players were to repeat this intense musical marathon night after night, while my voice could barely sustain one curtain call.
But, my place is in the stands, after all—I'm just glad I snagged a seat.
Leah Dennison is a freelance writer with Master of Arts degree in Arts Journalism from the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She is a resident of Thompson's Station.
Posted on: 10/3/2012