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Theatre Review: 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' at Arena Stage

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Smokey Joe's Cafe

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By Kyle Osborne

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When Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller met in Los Angeles in 1950, the two teenagers could never have imagined that they’d co-write dozens of songs that not only would be chart-topping hits, but would become part of Americana. Decades of pop culture have played out over a nearly continuous soundtrack of their music.

Without them, there is no Elvis, no Coasters, no 50’s nostalgia from which “American Graffiti” and “Happy Days” were born. Less Doo-Wop. Fewer happy memories. Songs like "Stand By Me", "On Broadway", "Love Potion #9" and "There Goes My Baby" only scratch the surface of the duo's impact on our collective consciousness.

In fact, sometimes songs get too familiar. We hear them so many times over so many years that they become wallpaper—we don’t even notice them anymore.

So, it’s an especially grand achievement that “Smokey Joe’s Café” makes these songs feel fresh again. The revue (there’s no storyline or dialogue, apart from the stories that are told within the actual songs themselves) lays out forty or so musical chestnuts with energetic choreography and a sterling collection of voices, rooted by a super tight band.

The cast of nine singer/actors is an all-star team of DC Theatre’s most notable voices, along with Tony-Award winner Levi Kreis. As an ensemble, their voices form a haunting, moving blend of sounds that convey as much emotion, surely more, than Leiber and Stoller might have hoped for during those late nights and long days of writing.

Stephawn P. Stephens sings the low notes with a velvety smoothness and a winning smile, often eliciting laughs from the audience. Kara-Tameika Watkins brings sexy to the stage every time she has the spotlight, she forces you to hang on every word of “Pearl’s A Singer.” Pick up your jaw when the song ends.

Virtually everyone gets a turn at center stage, but the two that had audiences cheering the loudest are well known to DC theatre goers: Veteran E. Faye Butler has always had a way of connecting with audiences—Mama grabs you and holds you until she’s done with you. Her Gospel stylings and physical flair always make her performances something to watch, not just listen to.

And Nova Y. Payton, well known to Signature Theatre regulars, makes her Arena Stage debut an unforgettable one. For reasons mentioned earlier, sometimes the best known songs are the least anticipated ones. “Hound Dog” is that aural wallpaper I was talking about—we picture scratchy black and white film of Elvis the Pelvis doing his thing in our collective memory. Not anymore. Payton’s take on it makes you realize something that Elvis never got across: the narrator of the song is pissed! Payton’s growling soprano will make you squeal with delight. Somebody’s in trouble and she’s letting him have it. It’s like a brand new song again.

Same goes for “Jailhouse Rock.” Its very popularity is what may have worn it out a bit with those of a certain age, but Levi Kreis injects enough energy and raw sexuality into it to have the place jumping. His quick solo on the piano wowed the crowd with his Jerry Lee Lewis-style boogie-woogie riffs.

Space doesn’t allow a shout out to each and every singer and song, but there are no weak links in this production. It’s an evening of nostalgia for some, introduction for others, and unbridled happiness for everyone in attendance.

Mr. Leiber, the lyricist for all these classics, passed away in 2011, but composer Mike Stoller was in the house and came out for a curtain call and a few words. The 81 year old is still sharp and spry, and was obviously happy, giving a shout out to the cast and to director Randy Johnson.

It was the perfect coda to a pitch perfect evening.

“Smokey Joe’s Café” continues at Arena Stage through June 8th. For tickets and more info, please visit: ArenaStage.org

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