A highly stylized, spirited musical revue that shimmies through the (popular and some not-so-popular) songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Smokey Joe’s Café triumphs—from its superb cast down to all the fedoras and a couple of well-placed pairs of saddle shoes. No detail is missed.
With no discernible, unifying story thread between the songs, the musical numbers could easily lose meaningful momentum, but director Randy Johnson (last seen at Arena Stage with A Night With Janis Joplin) has assembled a complete package. Giving the show structure, vision and palpable ambiance, he creates a lifetime stroll through the 1950s, conjuring memories of milestone moments from prom to leaving home and first love. The nostalgia tied to the songs becomes a character all its own—one with a biography with which anyone from any generation can identify.
The band sits at the center of it all, with a walk-able, danceable perimeter in a stage reminiscent of a city block. The costumes are shades of gray, black and white with red spread throughout. At times it represents sex. Passion. Playfulness. Even lust.
The cast performs with bravura, giving each song flourish and, despite the lack of story, singing with purpose, no matter how shallow or deep. Each takes on a persona that seems to stick throughout the show—Michael J. Mainwaring’s the goofy one, Stephawn P. Stephens the loveable lug, and Jay Adriel the cute, slick crooning one.
“I’m a Woman” (E. Faye Butler, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Nova Y. Payton, and Kara-Tameika Watkins) is soul tingling. “Hound Dog” (led by Payton) has spunk. “Teach Me How to Shimmy” (Austin Colby on vocals, Fitzgerald, well, shimmy-ing) is shameful fun.
The numbers crescendo, building steadily upon one another with just enough emotional nuance to keep each distinct. Your favorite may depend on your personal palette, but it’s hard not to feel moved many times.
As Act I closes out, the company—led by Payton and Tony award winner Levi Kreis—launch into “Saved,” a feel-good gospel, R&B infused tune that could raise a stadium to its feet. But it’s Butler—dressed in the white robes of a preacher lady and telling her tongue-in-cheek tale of her spiritual awakening—who transfixes the audience. Out come the tamborines. And, then, like an Evangelical Angel, she’s lifted to heaven as the stage rises, higher and higher.
Smokey Joe’s Café
Closes June 8, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $99 – $119
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Not to be outdone, Kreis steals “Jailhouse Rock” nearly out from under Elvis Presley, taking over at piano near and pausing the whole song with a wide smile for a long minute as if to say he knows he now owns you. And, the audience waits, drawn into the mania he has created, for the final note like kids on Christmas Eve.
And then, as Act II closes out, it’s Leiber and Stoller’s (arguably) signature hit—a song proven decade after decade to hold significant public sway—“Stand by Me.” Kreis again leads the company and turns the definitive classic from an intimate declaration of friendship into a grandiose gospel of its own. Facing the audience, the full company leads the audience into clapping before turning inward, toward each other. The last notes are sung, almost, just amongst themselves, as close friends would do when sharing life.
With peppy choreography by Parker Esse, a genius if there ever was one, a magical cast, and flawless direction, Smokey Joe’s Café is a simply a must-see.
Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller . Words and Music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller . Directed by Randy Johnson . Choreography by Parker Esse . Musical Direction by Rick Fox . Featuring Jay Adriel, E. Faye Butler, Austin Colby, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Levi Kreis, Michael J. Mainwaring, Nova Y. Payton, Stephawn P. Stephens, Kara-Tameika Watkins.Set and Projection Designer: Caite Hevner Kemp . Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi . Lighting Designer: Dan Ozminkowski . Sound Designer: Carl Casella . Wig Designer: Anne Nesmith . Assistant Music Director: James Davis, Jr. . Assistant Choreographer: Jessic Hartman . Stage Manager: Kurt Hall . Assistant Stage Manager: Christi B. Spain .
The Band: Rick Fox, Piana; James Davis Jr., Keyboard; George Hummel, Tenor and Baritone Sax; Steven Walker, Guitar; Dan Hall, Bass; Danny Villanueva, Percussion; Carroll Dashiel III, Drums; Rita Eggert, Musical Contractor.
Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Keith Loria . Theatermania
Terry Ponick . DigiNews
Mark Beachy . MDTheatreGuide
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
David Hintz . DCRockLive
Diane Schnoor . DCMetroTheaterArts