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For week ended February 27, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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Summarized by Lena Booth

Gladys Knight reigns in 'Smokey Joe's' at Wang
Boston Globe pgD13 25Feb00 A4
By Ed Siegel: Globe Staff

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS -- Gladys Knight provides much of the smoke in the touring production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at the Wang Theatre, despite battling a weeklong bout with pneumonia.

"Smokey Joe's Cafe" is a tribute to the songwriting team of the '50s and '60s, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Their music is often identified with the silliness of songs like "Charlie Brown" and innocent love ballads such as "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem," but they occasionally spice it up with Elvis Presley and Peggy Lee.

The variety of their music and the enthusiastic touring production that Knight has led into the Wang make "Smokey Joe's Cafe" into the solid, fun crowd pleaser that it has become.

Knight is working with a talented bunch of musicians and singer-dancers, but personality is often sacrificed for adrenaline. That's why Knight is key to the show's success; she takes her time in finding the heart of a song and defines what soul music is all about. Gladys Knight knows how to sing a song?

Knight is the consistent high point of the show, particularly in the second act, belting out ''Stand By Me,'' but her duet of Elvis' "Love Me" and "Don't" with Darryl J. Williams also lights up the first act. The ensemble numbers, like "On Broadway," break out of choreographic cliches and the staging by Joey McKneely and Jerry Zaks as well as Heidi Ettinger's sets are far more imaginative than most musical revues.

Many people prefer to listen to the originals, but revues strike a chord with the public and when you have singers like Knight and a production team like this one to raise the artistic level, there's reason to leave the tape deck behind and venture to the Wang.

"Smokey Joe's Cafe" takes us back to high school heartbreaks and yearnings. Too bad we didn't have guidance counselors like Gladys Knight back then.


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