Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON, DC – The multitalented cast members takes the last bow in Washington, DC’s Arena Stage’s latest production, Smokey Joe’s Café-The Songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the sparkling new musical revue celebrating the music of one of America’s most celebrated and successful songwriters currently playing at Arena Stage’s Fichandler’s Stage until June 8, 2014. The May 9 sold-out crowd deservedly gave the cast a rousing standing ovation where the players are normally in the pit, an intimate and interactive arena — and the music often sounds as if it could have been piped in from Broadway — but it’s entirely as it should be.
You definitely have to tip your hat off to musical director Rick Fox and his team of extraordinarily gifted musicians for keeping the pace rolling along smoothly with tunes like Dance with Me, You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog, and Jail House Rock. Making all of this possible would be the seven musicians – I would like to call the Arena Stage Pit Band All-Stars – seated in a movable/mobile bandstand pit for much of the evening, rollicking through the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and the cast with a verve that almost captivates the eye as much as it does the ear. It will be a long time before DC hosts music making this hot, sweet and altogether glorious again.
For the DC run, director Randy Johnson added a couple of name performers. The production features the previously announced Tony Award winner Levi Kreis (Broadway’s Million Dollar Quartet) and Helen Hayes Award winners E. Faye Butler (Arena Stage’s Pullman Porter Blues, Oklahoma!) and Nova Y. Payton (Signature Theatre’s Dreamgirls, Hairspray). They are joined by D.C.-area performers Jay Adriel, Austin Colby, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Michael J. Mainwaring, Stephawn P. Stephens and Kara–Tameika Watkins.
Levi Kreis and E. Fayne Butler are agreeable headliners, but they share the stage with an array of equally gifted performers, most notably the delectable and eccentric Michael J. Mainwaring.
Smokey Joe’s Café does not make much of an attempt to impart a narrative of any of the Rock and Roll/Blues history. Lacking an evening’s nominal host to guide us through the songs, the cast did an excellent job by allowing the songs selections do the hosting. Veteran actress and singer Faye Butler sprinkles the evening with a few snippets of humor, but it is incidental and perfectly timed. Instead the focus remains squarely on the music and its interpretation by those amazing musicians, under the snappy direction of White and the performers who sing, slide, scat, cartwheel and generally raise a ruckus in front of, above and around the musician’s pit.
A review of a revue tends to resemble a laundry list, so here comes highlights of the washing, in no particular order. Of her solo spots, Faye Butler shines brightest performing the standard Fools Fall in Love, her tangy voice embracing this classic with obvious affection and brought the house down. She’s also delightful when flirting with a quartet of catcalling gals in the lesser-known Kansas City, creditably playing a vampy dame with a naughty smile.
Leiber and Stoller’s gorgeous song Trouble, is delivered by Ashley Blair Fitzgerald and Kara-Tameika Watkins with a hypnotic simplicity, their voices taking flight in tandem with the swooning melody, which seems to glimmer visibly in the air before you. But for style, top marks go to Michael J. Mainwaring, who seems to bring back the authentic spirit of the era with his sensationally funny performance of two lowdown numbers. In Shoppin for Clothes, he glares meaningly into the audience and literally throws himself into the character! There Goes My Baby, a song written by Ben E. King (Benjamin Nelson), Lover Patterson, George Treadwell, Leiber and Stoller, and produced by Leiber and Stoller for The Drifters – is a disdainful holler at a no-good man eyeing out the ladies.
The dance numbers performed by the cast was delivered with good taste, so the abundance on view in the show is a particular treat. Much of it is thrilling: Levi Kreis is a sparkplug who seems to spend as much time flitting across the stage with his nimble feet in the Elvis Presley classic, JailHouse Rock. He’s funny, witty, and throws his hip around in the classic Elvis style which was a delight to the audience. Kreis’ feet seem to give off sparks as he alternately punishes and caresses the floor in one of the evening’s climactic numbers.
When watching Smokey Joe’s Café, you will know you are in the presence of musicians and performers of a supremely high caliber, but the virtuosity never feels prepackaged or mechanical. There’s too much joy in the playing and the interpretations of the musical selections, and that’s the feeling audiences will be floating out of the theater when the last note has died out.
Biography of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – Courtesy of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Jerry Leiber (songwriter; born April 25, 1933, died August 22, 2011), Mike Stoller (songwriter; born March 13, 1933)
“Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have written some of the most spirited and enduring rock and roll songs: “Hound Dog” (originally cut by Big Mama Thornton in 1953 and covered by Elvis Presley three years later), “Love Potion No. 9” (the Clovers), “Kansas City” (Wilbert Harrison), “On Broadway” ( the Drifters ), “Ruby Baby” ( Dion ) and “Stand By Me” (Ben E. King). Their vast catalog includes virtually every major hit by the Coasters (e.g., “Searchin’,” “Young Blood,” “Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak” and “Poison Ivy”). They also worked their magic on Elvis Presley , writing “Jailhouse Rock,” “Treat Me Nice” and “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care)” specifically for him. All totaled, Presley recorded more than 20 Leiber and Stoller songs.
As pop auteurs who wrote, arranged and produced countless recordings by the above-mentioned artists and others, Leiber and Stoller advanced rock and roll to new heights of wit and musical sophistication. They were particularly influential during rock and roll’s first decade, beginning with the original recording of “Hound Dog” in 1953 and continuing through to the Drifters ’ “On Broadway” in 1963. They brought a range of stylistic flavor to their story songs, which ranged from wisecracking, finger-popping hipster tunes to quieter love ballads. They even made a foray into country & western at Elvis Presley ’s request, penning “Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello.” About all that their songs had in common was a fundamental grounding in rhythm & blues.
Leiber, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, was born in 1933 and grew up on the edge of Baltimore’s black ghetto. Stoller, also born in 1933, was raised in Queens, learning the basics of blues and boogie-woogie from black kids at summer camp. The pair met in Los Angeles in 1950 and began writing right away. Leiber served as the sharp-witted lyricist, while the classically trained but jazz- and R&B-loving Stoller wrote the music. In 1951 one of the duo’s early songs, “That’s What the Good Book Says,” was recorded by the Robins (two members of the Robins later became original members of the Coasters ) for Modern Records. In 1954, Leiber and Stoller formed their own label, Spark, which released classics like the Robins’ “Riot in Cell Block #9.” After a string of similarly gutsy, groundbreaking records, Atlantic Records signed Leiber and Stoller to one of the industry’s first independent production deals.
After enjoying a wildly successful run at Atlantic in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Leiber and Stoller made their final and most successful attempt at running their own record label in 1964. Red Bird Records spotlighted the girl-group sound. Their unerring eye for talent brought great young producers and songwriters into the Red Bird fold. The company’s second release – “Chapel of Love,” by the Dixie Cups – shot to #1. Of Red Bird’s first 30 singles, 10 made the Top Forty – an outstanding percentage in the music industry. Red Bird’s commercial success was equaled by the quality of the music, including such girl-group classics as the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack.” Though the era of such timeless singles faded long ago, Leiber and Stoller have remained active in the music business to which they’ve contributed so substantially, up until Jerry Leiber’s death on August 22, 2011 in Los Angeles.”
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Entertainment News Editor.