Arena Stage is raising the roof with a rollicking journey through the golden age of rock, rhythm, and blues with Smokey Joe’s Café – The Songs of Leiber and Stoller. Director Randy Johnson, Choreographer Parker Esse, and Music Director Rick Fox have teamed with a stellar ensemble for a sometimes tender and often gutsy ride down memory lane.
Smokey Joe’s Café is meant to be fun – and from the moment this cast takes the stage it is clear that they – and the audience – are in for a good time. Michael J. Mainwaring, Austin Colby, Jay Adriel, and Stephawn P. Stephens deliver tight harmonies and smooth dance moves in such hits as “Young Blood,” “Keep On Rollin’,” and “Love Potion #9.” E. Faye Butler, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Nova Y. Payton, and Kara-Tameika Watkins nearly brought the audience to its feet with the fierce power anthem “I’m a Woman.” Butler, Payton, and Tony Award-winner Levi Kreis deliver a “Kansas City” with tightly packed harmonies that is sassy to the nth degree.
Smokey Joe’s Café is a Grammy Award-winning tribute to legendary songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who made a touching appearance at the opening night curtain call) and the dazzling number and variety of songs that this pair wrote. Half the fun of Smokey Joe’s Café is the sense of nostalgia and “wait, they wrote that too?” that washes over you as the ensemble careens through more than 40 musical numbers spanning multiple decades.
Still, there is the potential for a show lacking dialogue to slide into an impersonal concert mode. It’s a tribute to Johnson’s assured direction and the charm of his cast that they imbue the songs and the show with real personality. Each song contains a story within a story and the team behind Arena’s Smokey Joe’s Café works hard to bring out the nuances in the material.
Every member of Arena’s cast has a star moment. The athletic, intense, and expressive Levi Kreis brings down the house with a driving rendition of “Jailhouse Rock” that even includes a star turn on the keyboards. Helen Hayes Award winner E. Faye Butler has star power to burn, whether taking the audience by storm in “Fools Fall in Love” or exchanging sly riffs with Stephawn P. Stephens in “You’re the Boss.” Stephens delights with his deep bass voice and amiable humor throughout the show, standing out in such numbers as “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.” Stephens also delights in the gorgeous duet “Love Me/Don’t” with the extremely talented Nova Y. Payton. Payton stopped the show in Act Two with a scorching and fierce rendition of “Hound Dog” that made you say Elvis, who?
In addition to being a charming singer, Austin Colby’s expressive and sharp dance moves made him the standout in the men’s numbers. Colby’s “Teach Me How to Shimmy” with the long-legged and incredibly talented dancer Ashley Blair Fitzgerald is one of the highlights of the show. Fitzgerald teams up with Kara-Tameika Watkins for a sultry and edgy “Trouble” reminiscent of the best of Fosse’s choreography. Watkins makes the most of her star turns, combining comedy with a sassy purr in “Don Juan” and “Some Cats Know.” Michael J. Mainwaring is charming and adds the right blend of comic charm to all of his numbers, particularly “D.W. Washburn” and “Shopping for Clothes.” Jay Adriel delivers beautifully soulful performances of “Dance with Me” and “Loving You.”
Choreographer Parker Esse puts this talented cast through their paces with intricate and entertaining dance moves, perfectly matched to the songs. The band, under the direction of Rick Fox, is a joy to listen to as they rock through two hours of non-stop music.
Ilona Somogyi’s costume design does a fantastic job of indicating the decades represented by the music. Highlights from the dozens of costume changes the show requires include the red shimmy dress, the quartet boy band look, the homage to the 1950s, and the “Jailhouse Rock” ensembles.
Caite Hevner Kemp’s set pieces utilized Arena’s space perfectly. I particularly liked the spiral staircase platform, the jukebox, and the way the band in the center was raised and lowered depending on the number. The projections, on the other hand, were difficult to see and detracted, rather than added, to the energy of the performers and band center stage. Opening night also included some sound issues in terms of faulty microphones and unbalanced sound levels (I felt bad for Mr. Mainwaring). While these glitches didn’t affect the joy the actors brought to the work, they did affect the balance of some of the harmonies. I am confident that the sound issues will be rectified by tonight’s performance.
Arena Stage’s Smokey Joe’s Café is a treat for the senses. It’s a musical delight!
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.