"There's so much history with us," explained Tony Award nominee Brenda Braxton, who was reeling following two concert performances of Smokey Joe's Café for packed houses at Manhattan hotspot 54 Below. "We weren't just [together] on Broadway, we were a family… It was more than just bringing the show back together; it was bringing the family back together — all the memories and thinking of [late original cast member] Patti [Darcy Jones] and thinking of B.J. [Crosby] and Victor [Trent Cook] and everybody… All of that was coming back to us."
History hit Manhattan as six original cast members, Adrian Bailey, Braxton, DeLee Lively, Ken Ard, Frederick Owens and Michael Park, Deb Lyons (a member of the closing cast), Ramona Keller and Darryl Williams took to the 54 Below stage to perform the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller musical revue from start to finish.
"Tonight, I'll be the boss," Braxton said with a laugh to Owens in their second-half duet "You're the Boss." Braxton staged the evening, which featured the entire cast (dressed in all black), a full band under the musical direction of Louis St. Louis (who conducted on Broadway) and Jerry Zaks (who received a 1995 Tony nod for his direction of the Broadway musical) seated in the back booth.
In traditional fashion, the evening took off with "Neighborhood," and hit numbers followed each other. Keller, a standby for the Broadway musical, took on B.J. Crosby's track — performing songs such as "Dance With Me," "Saved" and "Fools Fall in Love" (to which she received a full-house standing ovation), among others — and Lyons performed the same songs she did on closing night, the songs originally performed by late actress Pattie Darcy Jones. (Jones died at her NJ home at the age of 54 in 2007, and Crosby suffered a stroke in 2008.) Following the closing number — "Stand by Me," featuring a teary-eyed cast of nine — On Broadway director and star Braxton spoke and took a moment of silence for those unable to attend. She concluded by saying, "Patti, we love you."
Aside from its solemn curtain call, the evening was electric, with each cast member sounding as polished as they did Jan. 16, 2000, when the Café closed up shop at the Virginia Theatre. Braxton took out her red-feather boa for "Don Juan" ("You know I had to bring it, right?" she asked the audience); Lively and Braxton performed as much choreography as they could (on the packed 54 Below stage) during "Trouble"; and Lively took her iconic white shimmy dress out of the closest for "Teach Me How to Shimmy," proving that the mother of three still has all of the dance moves.
Audience members sang along throughout the evening, and rapturous applause (and occasional standing Os) followed Keller's "Saved," Lyon's "Pearl's a Singer," the male's "On Broadway," the female's "I'm a Woman" and Williams' "I (Who Have Nothing)," among others.
"About a year ago, I went to [54 Below producer] Richard [Frankel], and I said, 'You know what — we need to do a reunion. We have to do a reunion!' It took us almost a year to get everyone together who would be able to do it," continued Braxton, "and sure enough here we are."
On Feb. 9, the cast was back here, like Braxton said: "On Broadway."