Out of the shadows: How ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ dancer picks a partner
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter/@cstdhoekstra May 15, 2013 4:53PM
Actor TJ Crawford dances with audience member Nancy Funk, of Munster, Ind., during a performance of Smokey Joe's Cafe at the Royal George Cabaret in Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
‘SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE: The Songs of Leiber And Stoller’
When: Extended through June 30
Where: Royal George Theatre Cabaret, 1641 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 988-9000; www.ticketmaster.com
Run time: 1 hour and
40 minutes with one intermission
Updated: June 17, 2013 6:37AM
There is a moment in time when everyone puts their best foot forward.
And they dance.
Nancy Funk’s life as an elementary school teacher, traveler and homemaker played out in the Elvis Presley hit ballad “Loving You,” which is featured in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe — The Songs of Leiber and Stoller.”
During a recent weekday matinee, Funk was sitting in the first row. She had been assigned the seat. The Munster, Ind., resident was unaware actor TJ Crawford would emerge from the ensemble rendition of “Loving You” to ask her to slow dance in the theater aisle.
It was Crawford’s 99th performance of “Smoky Joe’s Cafe” at the Royal George. The smiling Kobe Bryant look-alike also appeared in 42 “Smoky Joe” revues during the first run of the show at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre in Rogers Park.
Few surprise moments have gone off as seamlessly as they did with Funk. Her turquoise top even matched Crawford’s thin turquoise tie.
Crawford makes his move about a minute into the song. He then dances with his lucky partner for another minute.
“Picking someone for that moment is like Russian roulette,” Crawford said after the show. “Some days there are all men and it’s ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to do?’ Sometimes I have to walk up to the pole [in the center of the cabaret] and sometimes they say ‘No.’ ”
Crawford, 26, schmoozes his intended dance partners.
He starts by gently extending a hand. If the potential partner shows any resistance, he drops to one knee. By this time the audience starts clapping support.
“Usually by the clapping they get up,” he said. “But if they don’t, I kind of panic, kiss their hand and walk away. I try to be as charming as possible. Then, I try to be sad and pathetic.”
Been there, done that.
Funk, 70, said, “I was hoping I could dance with him. But when you walk on the floor you’re still surprised. I was ready, ‘Let’s do it!’ ”
And they did, moving around the front of the stage with the elegance of Astaire and Rogers.
The acclaimed musical features 39 Leiber and Stoller hits including Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” the Drifters’ “On Broadway” and the show-stopper “Jailhouse Rock,” which prompted nearby tourists from Bavaria, Germany, to clap their hands in rhythm.
Audience members have to be on their toes. During the Coasters’ “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” Britt-Marie Sivertsen shimmied down the aisle and winked at a lonely reporter. The Coasters’ “Little Egypt” begins with the line, “I went and bought myself a ticket and I sat down in the very first row...”
Where did these musical moments take Funk?
“High school gym in Kentland, Ind.,” she answered. “Homecoming dances. Pep hops. Exactly.”
Crawford is from Montgomery, Ala. “This music reminds me of growing up and listening to my parent’s records. I love this. I feel today’s music industry is steering away from actual music. During the times this music came out, people just wanted to forget what was going on and enjoy themselves.”