It is always lovely to be in the audience while an iconic artist is being brought up on stage, post-curtain, to reap appreciation and accolades. In L.A., this typically takes place on opening night and the artist – usually a playwright or composer – is never anything other than gracious. Mel Brooks cracks wise, Billy Joel jumps on the piano and plays “Only the Good Die Young.” Hugs, tears, gratitude. So it goes.
Last weekend, it was Mike Stoller, the co-writer and co-lyricist of the truckload of standards which comprise “Smokey Joe’s Café: the Songs of Leiber and Stoller.” His co-writer and producer Jerry Leiber having passed away in 2011, the 80-year-old Stoller mounted the Pasadena Playhouse stage, gave plaudits to the performers and director who had just charmed and muscled his songs for the past two hours and then directed one last message skyward.
“Well, Jerry,” he said with what sounded like tenderness, not irony. “I guess we fooled ‘em again.”
Like I said, a genuinely sweet moment. Doubtless Stoller and Leiber had an inside joke, but yeah, in a way, “Smokey Joe’s Café” is a bit of a put on, albeit a hugely successful put on: its nearly five years tenure from 1995 to 2000 made it the longest running Broadway revue in history.
That’s a tribute to the long-standing popularity of these songs as much as it is to what Jerry Zaks did on Broadway and what director Jeffrey Polk, music director Abdul Hamid Royal and the nine member cast have crafted in Pasadena. Certainly, you’ve got plenty of knockout solos, some frisky dancing and a whole lot of tunes you’ve heard many times before. The cast members seem every bit at home at “Smokey Joe’s.” Heaven knows Polk is, since he’s performed and/or staged the musical all over the world.
And while it feels a bit swinish to shrug at this many solid voices tearing the stuffing out of this many classic rock ‘ roll standards (more than 40 over two acts) the Playhouse production eventually feels like a night spent with a very kickin’ tribute band. That’s not entirely the company’s or Polk’s fault. The songs are arranged in largely haphazard fashion. They occasionally tell stories; more often they do not and the cast is left trying to establish forced or stagey rapport (between couples, friends, shopkeeper and client, etc.). “Smokey Joe’s” songs rarely talk to or inform each other despite Polk’s efforts at providing dramatic seguways .
So the music ends, and we shift from the gold digging ballad “Don Juan” performed by a seriously sexy Kyra Little Da Costa with a ridiculously long feather boa, to Michael A. Shepperd, LaVance Colley and a trio of headless dancing suits imparting a lesson in high end clothes shopping (“Shoppin’ for Clothes.”)
Shepperd’s is the production’s deepest bass voice, a nice asset with which to add “don’t talk back” to “Yakety Yak.” Colley, both the dissolute hero of “D.W. Washburn” and the target of the first act closing “Saved” (Those two songs actually do follow logically) has the potential to torch the house down to its smoking embers in the lamentation “I (Who Have Nothing).” Robert Neary who was part of the original run, Thomas Hobson (also the production’s dance captain) and Stu James round out the men with Shepperd, James, Hobson and Colley often used in quartet formation.
The four women are an equally varied assortment. Da Costa, Monique Midgette and Carly Thomas Smith are belters while Adrianna Rose Lyons should set more than a few pulses racing first on the leggy tease “Trouble” and later as the girl who can “Teach me How to Shimmy,” which she does,nearly dislodging half the fringes on her flounce-filled outfit. Leiber and Stoller wrote extensively for Elvis Presley who in no way leaps to mind via Midgette’s rendering of “Hound Dog” nor during the men – in black and white jail stripes – rolling along to “Jailhouse Rock.”
To repeat, there is not a sour note or an energy-lacking café-ite. Whether these performers are also actors, another show must dictate. For maximum enjoyment, a person would do well to recognize and sincerely love these tunes. Given Leiber and Stoller’s storied history and prolific output, the former part of this equation at least isn’t difficult.
“Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller” plays 8 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 4 and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun.; through Oct. 13 at 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. $45-$85. (626) 356-7529, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.