'Smokey Joe’s Café' Makes Old New Again
Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith called the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller the soundtrack of a generation, the songbook of our lives.
Listening to and watching—and moving to and being moved by—the Randy Johnson-directed production of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” which features some 40 songs by the dynamic songwriting and rock-n-roll pioneering duo of Leiber and Stoller, you got the sense that this music could connect generations.
Often with early rock-n-roll songs, you get that karaoke itch. They’re the song still being done on public television nostalgia shows by surviving members of the groups that had hot hits with them quite some time ago. When you’re talking soundtrack and songbook of a generation, you have to ask just a little which lives, what generation, which songs.
There’s no question that this music might not get to everybody —for every bobbing bald and white haired head in the audience, there were at least a few folks like the two thirty-something men next to me who just barely seemed to manage a heartbeat.
This version of “Smokey Joe’s Café” avoids the karaoke pitfall thanks to Johnson’s heartfelt if narrative-free concept and direction. It lets the very gifted, high-energy and individualistic performers tell the story of the music, and in the process shakes off the dust of over-familiarity from the songs, some of which got tens way back on American Bandstand.
The production wasn’t trouble-free. It had to contend with the over-heated expectations and energy of an official opening night (Stoller was in attendance; Leiber died in 2011.) Some technical glitches like a dead mike and projections that did little to clarify matters. Such things no doubt will be dealt with for the show—which runs through June 8.
It’s really a salute to a time and place and the gifts of two young guys in tune with the coming times who were also deeply saturated in the blues. Their songs were recorded by just about everyone worth talking about, all kinds of singers—Peggy Lee, Elvis, the Coasters, Ben E. King and the Drifters, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Muddy Waters and, yes, even Edith Piaf.
Johnson’s direction and the choreography by Parker Esse provide a kind of welcome mat—along with the band in the center of the stage, the balcony and staircase, the jukebox, along with cool duds from the period, old stuff which has often been worn anew and again.
This isn’t just kid stuff—although Leiber songs like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” helped send Elvis into the teen stratosphere of the 1950s—because the blues, jazzy torch songs and the fast-paced patter-chatter songs of the Coasters make their way in here as well as less familiar songs.
The ostensible out-of-town star of this show, Levi Kreis, who won a Tony for his piano-banging Jerry Lee Lewis stint in “Million Dollar Quartet,” takes on “Jailhouse Rock.” While not trying to be Elvis, he makes it his own—without ever losing any of its jolting flavor. But it’s E. Faye Butler, as dangerous as ever, full of the blues that they all but spill out of her with emotion, who ends the first act with the God-loves-you Gospel rouser “Saved.” She adds her own often rowdy, always accessible soul and blues flavored style to the proceedings as she has done before in “Crowns,” “Dinah Was” and “Oklahoma.” She’s one of ours, even if she still lives in Chicago.
There’s a gaggle of Coasters-flavored fun songs—“Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown”—the kind that made rock and roll rock and also did yeoman duty in fueling the culture-bridging blowback of pop music.
Watch great dancer Ashley Blair Fitzgerald show Austin Colby just what to do in “Can You Show Me How To Shimmy?” Listen to Colby’s deep yearning when he sings “Spanish Harlem” and Butler make an anthem out of “Fools Fall in Love.” Nova Payton and Stephawn Stephens break hearts in the “Love Me” and “Don’t,” a combo of searing ballads.
Often, it’s the unfamiliar that surprises you here: “Don Juan,” “Shopping for Clothes,” “D.W. Washburn,” “Pearl’s a Singer” and “Some Cats know.” They’re practically a showcase for the song-writing range of Leiber and Stoller.
The duo is also the reason for the huge success of Ben E. King—still performing—and the Drifters in the early 1960s, from “Broadway” to the evocative “Dance With Me” and “There Goes My Baby,” ending up with "Love Potion No. 9" that eventually just caused the audience to sway and levitate a little. And, then, the best for last: “Stand By Me,” a personal keepsake for this writer and many in the audience from the look and sound of things.
What this high octane company—and Johnson—manages to do was to give the Leiber and Stoller songs a way to jump up and live again, fresh as the first time anybody heard them. In this way, we repeat ourselves, come full circle to the place where everything old is really new again.