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Theatre Review: "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

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Smokey Joe Really Smokes

By Gordon Meyer
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Pop quiz:  What do the following classic songs from the 1950s and 60s have in common?

“Fools Fall in Love,” “On Broadway,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Love Potion #9,” “Stand By Me.”

They were all written by a couple of nice middle class Jewish guys from Los Angeles named Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, one of the most successful and prolific songwriting teams of the mid-twentieth century.  They’re also prominently featured in a revival of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” the Pasadena Playhouse’s opening show for their 2013/14 season.  Let me cut to the chase.  If you like classic doo-wop music, this production of “Smokey Joe” is a must see.

There’s no plot to the show.  It’s simply a showcase of 39 songs from the Leiber and Stoller catalog performed by an incredibly talented ensemble cast of four women and five men, all of whom are both fabulous singers and wonderful dancers.  This revival was both choreographed and directed by Jeffrey Polk, who has a long standing association with the show, dating back to the original national tour.  While every member of the cast is given the opportunity to shine, both in solo and ensemble numbers, it’s Polk’s direction and often sly and humorous choreography that’s the real star of the show – well, that and the music, of course.  Although there is no story, much less dialog, Polk manages to tell dozens of mini stories through the way he moves his cast.

Unfortunately, the program doesn’t say which cast members perform the individual songs, so I can’t give as much credit as I’d like, except to say that some of the songs elicited an especially strong response from the opening night audience, either because of their overall energy and dance moves, the emotions elicited by the performers, or both.  I especially enjoyed the songs “Dance With Me,” Keep On Rolling,” You’re the Boss” and the Elvis classic “Jailhouse Rock.”  Although most of the dancing was blend of Broadway style  and Rock and Roll, the “Spanish Harlem” number included a beautiful and sensuous ballet solo both in silhouette and in front of the curtain by a very talented woman. “Stand By Me,” the penultimate song in the show, literally had the opening night audience on its feet, clapping and dancing along with the cast.

Since all of the cast members were standouts in their own way, I’d like to acknowledge them by name.  I suspect you’ll be seeing many, if not all of them in prominent roles in the future.  They are LaVance Colley, Kyra Little Da Costa, Thomas Hudson, Stu James, Adrianna Rose Lyons, Monique L. Midgette, Robert Neary, Michael A. Shepperd and Carly Thomas Smith.

The cast was backed up by a smoking hot seven piece orchestra led by Abdul Hamid Royal, who, like Polk, was part of the original national tour of the show.  Royal repeats his role as music director, conductor and pianist.  He even sings one of the songs and does so very well.

Seeing “Smokey Joe’s Café” made me realize just how influential Leiber and Stoller were for generations of songwriters.  I don’t know whether the Oscar winning songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman ever acknowledged it or not, but their score for “Little Shop of Horrors” is practically a love letter to the musical genre that Leiber and Stoller helped to create, as are many of the songs from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

It turns out that Mike Stoller, though in his 80s, is a member of the Pasadena Playhouse board of directors, along with his wife.  The Playhouse dedicated this production to Stoller and his late partner – and deservedly so.  “Smokey Joe’s Café” is a wonderfully entertaining evening of musical theatre and a fitting tribute to the songwriting team that some fans call the “Rodgers and Hammerstein of Rock and Roll.”

“Smokey Joe’s Café” runs through October 13.  For more information: www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org  

 

Listen to Gordon Meyer and Jeff Levy talk about the latest in gadgets, gizmos, home entertainment and the world of consumer electronics on “The Gizmo Guys” – Friday evenings at 7:00 PM PDT on www.LATalkRadio.com.  Listen live or by podcast on your computer, iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone or Android tablet (with the free app).

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