As soon as we saw the current off-Broadway revival of Smokey Joe's Cafe, directed and choreographed by Tony nominee Joshua Bergasse, we had to know just how it did it. In 90 minutes, the cast of nine races through 40 songs by prolific pop songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The show includes megahits from the last century—like 1957's "Jailhouse Rock" and 1963's "On Broadway"—and they're all decked out with dancing.
With no dialogue and no narrative, there's plenty of room for Bergasse's choreographic mind to run wild. "Dance plays a huge role in this show," says Bergasse. "Most of these songs were written to get people out on the dance floor, so you kind of can't stop your body from moving." Even though the hits are old, the show definitely isn't stuck in a time warp. "We wanted to make the dancing feel like it isn't of one specific time." You'll see social dances from the '50s and '60s, but Bergasse quickly mentions Michael Jackson as a big influence as well. (Yes, the moonwalk makes an appearance, as do more current crazes like the Nae Nae.)
How did Bergasse tackle such a jam-packed musical? "I thought of each number as its own thing and not the show as a big beast," he says. "But we did things to tie it all together," like setting the show in a bar. "You're really in Smokey Joe's Cafe." And though the cast doesn't play specific characters throughout, there are hints of relationships. "If you watched closely enough, it feels like some of them have a through line. They start out young and they mature throughout the show, and they meet back at Smokey Joe's Cafe a bit older and a bit wiser."
One of these couples is portrayed by Dionne D. Figgins, a stunning Dance Theatre of Harlem alum, and Jelani Remy, who, no big deal, played Simba in The Lion King on Broadway. Dance Magazine recently stepped into the studio as Bergasse coached the pair through the romantically charged number "Spanish Harlem." Flanked by Sherrod Barnes and Matt Oestreicher of the show's live band, Figgins and Remy worked with Bergasse to finesse some of the choreography's trickier moments.