First class entertainment in Smokey Joe’s Cafe and Vanity Fair

Special to the Gazette

This week’s reviews provide you with two terrific opportunities to see up-beat, fun-filled and fast-paced, first-class entertainment in San Francisco’s Geary Theater and Pleasanton’s Firehouse Arts Center, this coming week. First, I’ll share my unmitigated rave review of “Smokey Joe’s Café” presented by the Tri-Valley Repertory theater company, a mesmerizing evening of enjoying a multitude of fast and furious crossover blues to rock ‘n’ roll musical hits written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller during the 1950s.

When I was in high school in 1954 to 1958, 70 chart rockin-hits written by Stoller and Lieber topped the hit parades. Some of my favorites included Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”, “Loving You”, and “Jail House Rock”; the Coasters’ hits, “Young Blood”, “Searchin”, and “Yakety Yak”; and hits like “Kansas City”, “Charlie Brown”, “On Broadway”, were recorded over and over again by many stars. If your favorite entertainers were groups like the Drifters, the Coasters, the Clovers, Jay and the Americans, then you’re probably familiar with their music.

If you were out and about in the 50s and early 60s then I’m sure you’re familiar with the Drifters big 1959 hit “There Goes My Baby” and other legacy singles like “Poison Ivy”, Along Came Jones”, and “Little Egypt”. I’ve seen this dynamic dancing and singing cabaret type show several times over the years and I have to praise producer Kathleen Breedvelde, director/choreographer Christina Laszlo and the dynamic music director, Sierra Dee for bringing together a truly outstanding cast of performers and musicians who knocked this show right out of the park, a bases-loaded homerun!

Smokey Joe’s Café is a show that I always enjoy seeing, but the primary reason that I decided to see this particular show came when I read that a very talented performer whom I’ve been familiar with for possibly 10 years and been following and reviewing intently over the past year was going to be one of the performers. And yes, Dave Abrams delivered a stellar performance fully to my expectations, and at the same time, the entire singing and dancing cast pulled together by this show’s producers were equally formidable. I look forward to seeing these artists again. The lighting effects designed by Erica Engle along with the many colorful and sexy costumes crafted for this show by Lisa Danz, Jane Yuen Corick, and Kathleen Breedveld, gave the show an exciting and colorful depth that added immensely to my overall enjoyment.

Smokey Joe’s Café continues in the Firehouse Arts Center at 444 Railroad Ave. in Pleasanton, with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 PM, followed by Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 PM, now through May 12. Tickets range in price between a very reasonable $22 and $41 each depending which seats you choose on the date you prefer! Tickets may be secured by calling 925-931-4848 weekday afternoons or more simply, by visiting the Tri-Valley Repertory Theater website at

This is a beautiful, comfortable, easy to find community theater with ample free parking right in the heart of downtown Pleasanton, where the people are friendly and the atmosphere is cordial and safe.

Now, I will shift gears and introduce you to the American Conservatory Theater’s (ACT) spell-binding and outrageously funny interpretation of “Vanity Fair”, a tale of a pre-Victorian era girl, who, by lack of wealthy parentage is purportedly destined to spend her life working for the wealthy as somebody’s governess.

However, this very plucky and ambitious Becky Sharp (Rebekah Brockman) aspired against all odds to become a member of England’s upper-class. What she laces in class status, she attempts to make up for with a wealth of wisdom, intestinal fortitude, fierce wit, and coldly calculating charm, to let nothing stand in her way of acquiring the wealth and status she so desires. As she graduates from Miss Pinkertons school for girls, she and her closest friend, Amelia Sedley (Maribel Martinez), set off for London to stay with Amelia’s family.

The story chronicles the two girls’ adventures and misadventures as they experience lust, love, fortune and lack of fortune, death of lovers, patronage and the perils of patronage, all based in large part as to where they fit by birth and consequence into the British upper-class system. Becky’s desire to attain wealth and status at any cost, may be exceedingly costly indeed!

The story evolves much like a play within a play upon a stage that reminds me of a music Hall vaudeville venue mixed with burlesque theater, at times risqué, at times poignant, at times painful. The play employees a manager or narrator (Dan Hiatt) actor to guide the audience through the tumultuous time-frames of the story.

At times he plays significant characters, and at other times performs miniscule roles, such as holding up an “applause” board to insure the audience will applaud at the time the company wishes the applause to be forthcoming. The cast is superb, the direction by Jessica Stone is quite excellent as well.

The scenic design by Alexander Dodge is beyond brilliant, pure and unique. It is thoroughly engaging, funny, sad, and monumentally silly and happy over its entire course. It is a very unique style of production that is delightfully different and thoroughly entertaining. I sincerely recommend that you attend.

This marvelous “Vanity Fair” continues Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 PM now through Sunday, May 12th in ACT’s Geary theater at 415 Geary St. in San Francisco. Tickets which range in price between a minuscule $15 and $110 each may be secured by calling 415-749-2228 or going to their webpage at .

My wife and I take BART to the Powell street station a walk the 4 block distance from the station, west down Eddy Street, and north up Mason Street to Geary and the theater.

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