Chock full of treats “Smokey Joe’s Café” which opened at Pasadena Playhouse Sunday, September 22, 2013, is a rockin’ celebration featuring the music and lyrics of prolific songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Director Jeffrey Polk a dynamic ensemble of singer/dancers including LaVance Colley, Kyra DaCosta, Thomas Hobson, Adrianna Rose Lyons, Monique L. Midgette, Robert Neary, Michael A. Shepperd and Carly Thomas Smith. They lit up the stage with their energy and talent throughout the two-act musical review and each ensemble member took full advantage of their many opportunities to shine.
Conductor Abdul Hamid Royal on keyboard and his sizzling band including John Gentry Tennyson (keyboard), Sal Lozano (saxes), Vanessa Brown (percussion), Mike Shapiro (drums), Jervvonmy (bass) and Fred Clark (guitar) moved seamlessly through musical styles and brought an infectious vitality to the evening’s entertainment.
Leiber and Stoller met in Los Angeles as young songwriters in 1950, producing material for rhythm and blues and gospel artists. By the time they were 20 years old, they had their first huge hit with “Big Mama” Thornton’s “Hound Dog” that went on to be covered by Elvis Presley in 1956, paving the way for the new emerging sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Their deep canon of hits helped define an era in American music (1950s and 60s and beyond) that continues to speak to audiences today.
In addition to “Big Mama” Leiber and Stoller wrote hit songs for Elvis Presley, The Coasters, The Drifters and Peggy Lee to name a few. But Polk and Royal created fresh and delightful interpretations of many songs for this show.
Everything works in this production: stellar performances, Gary Wissman’s scenic design (loved Act II opening), Steve Young’s lighting and projection design (especially for “On Broadway”), Sherrell Martin’s costume design (love the dancing “suits”) and Polk’s fun choreography.
Plenty of laughs, sass and sensuality interspersed with heartfelt ballads, smooth harmonies and toe-tapping tunes add variety to this show that has so many highlights there is only room to mention a few:
Highlights in Act I include Colley, Hobson, James, Neary and Shepperd in “Young Girl” (those boys sure can move their hips), the melding of “Love Me” and “Don’t,” a whole lot of “Trouble” stirred up by scantily clad Da Costa and Lyons and Midgette’s power pipes in “Saved.”
Highlights in Act II include “You’re the Boss,” “Loving You” (gotta love the mirror ball), a show-stopping rendition of “I’m a Woman” by Smith, Da Costa, Lyons and Midgette, a surprising dance interlude in “Spanish Harlen” and an audience-pleasing “I (Who Have Nothing)” by Colley.
In November, 1994, “Smokey Joe’s Café” premiered at the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood as a part of the Ahmanson Theatre’s season and then transferred to Broadway in March 1995 where it played at the Virginia Theatre for over 2,000 performances becoming the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps made a wise decision when he chose to open the 2013/14 season with this wonderful showcase, especially fitting as Stoller and his wife, Corky Hale Stoller, have been a supportive part of the Playhouse for many years.
Stoller took the stage on opening night to say a few words of thanks giving the standing ovation audience another reason to applaud. He ended his short speech looked up and sent a message to his late collaborator, Leiber, “Well, Jerry, it looks like we fooled ‘em again.”
No fooling, if this engaging and thoroughly entertaining production of “Smokey Joe’s Café” is any indication, the Playhouse’s new season is off to a terrific start. Don’t miss this show! It’s a perfect balm for trying times and absolutely fabulous from start to finish.
“Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller” performs 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through October 13. Single show ticket prices range from $45 - $85, with premium seating available for $125. Service and theatre restoration fees apply to all purchases. Calling The Pasadena Playhouse at 626-356-7529, visit the box office during open hours or visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org. Group Sales (8 or more) are available by calling 626-921-1161.
The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue in Pasadena.