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Drury Lane's 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' set on Maxwell Street

August 30, 2016 at 10:30 AM

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Even if you've never seen "Smokey Joe's Cafe," you'll know the show's songs: "Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog," "Stand By Me," "Yakety Yak," "On Broadway" — the 39-song tuner celebrates the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in all their hip-swiveling, bluesy glory. And if you have seen the show? Prepare for a brand new take on the jukebox musical opening Sept. 1 at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge is not interested in staging Broadway's longest running revue as simply a concert set list. "I'm never interested in doing revivals as the show has already been done," says Dodge, whose 2010 reboot of "Ragtime" garnered seven Tony nominations. With "Smokey Joe," she's moving the piece to an intensely specific locale, and molding stories and characters within the songs.

"I'm like Sherlock Holmes, looking for clues in the music and lyrics about where the show is set and the stories it tells. Everything in 'Smokey Joe' pointed me to Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, " she says.

Known as the New Orleans of the North, Maxwell Street was a hotbed of indelible musical influences from its inception as an open air market catering to immigrants going back to thelate 1800s. The market was moved twice — once in 1994 to allow for expansion of the University of Illinois, in which the Maxwell Street buidlings were demolished — and again in 2008.

In his 2006 documentary "Cheat You Fair," filmmaker Phil Ranstrom describes the Chicago neighborhood as the place where the blues were born. Mick Jagger took harmonica lessons there from Junior Wells. Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Bo Diddly played open air concerts there. Also known as the Ellis Island of the Midwest, Maxwell Street was a gathering place for Chicago's newcomers. You could buy anything from socks to sausages at Maxwell Street. Simone De Beauvoir compared the market to the grand bazaars of Marrakesh; Studs Terkel wrote about being lured into the "girlie shows." Marcel Marceau studied people for his mime act.

"One thing that I love about Maxwell Street that came up over and over again in my research — it was a genuine melting pot. The only color that mattered was green," says Dodge. "You had Jews, blacks, whites, Poles, Chicago natives, musicians, hustlers, kids, adults — everybody came to Maxwell Street, everybody was trying to survive and thrive."

Dodge's nine-person cast reflects the diversity of a place where you might find wealthy suburban matrons bargain hunting alongside scrap metal fences looking to offload purloined downspouts.

Sean Blake (last seen at Drury Lane as Cupid and Hermes in "Xanadu") plays one of the denizens of the market. "Not to sound all cliche, but I think music unites us," he says, "You saw that on Maxwell Street. I don't care what your background is or what you look like. Good music, songs like the ones Leiber and Stoller wrote, they have the power to make everybody happy. That's what makes this show special."

Dodge is paying homage to the artists who originally recorded Leiber and Stoller's songs. When Donica Lynn's powerhouse vocals rip into "Hound Dog," she'll be singing Big Mama Thornton's 1952 version, not the Elvis cover that followed it years later.

"The show is like flipping through a family album," Lynn says. "I'm a big believer in family being more than just blood relatives — and this Maxwell Street community was a family. This show isn't about doing your song and then leaving. Everyone is connected."

Lynn vividly recalls the sights and sounds of Maxwell Street from her childhood. "We'd always go to Maxwell Street after church on Sundays. My aunt would shop for fabric. My dad would always get a Polish," she says, "Eventually, I remember it getting smaller and smaller, becoming almost like a ghost town."

With the help of her cast and Jeff Award-winning set designer Kevin Depinet, Dodge hopes to recreate Maxwell Street's heyday both visually and musically.

"The show is an escape of pure joy," Dodge says, "but it's also a reminder that there are places where we're united. Music has the power to bring us together. As do places like Maxwell Street."

Drury Lane presents, 'Smokey Joe's Cafe'

When: Previews Sept. 1–7; regular run Sept. 8–Oct. 23

Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace

Tickets: $43-$58 previews; $45-$60 regular run

Contact: (630) 530-0111;