Arena State pays tribute to Lieber and Stoller with ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teresa Wood)

“Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller” gets off to a slow, easy roll. Forty-two of the most beloved songs from the pantheon of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll are set to be sung in only two hours and that’s going to necessitate a build, as they say.

The nine-member cast kicks things off with few less familiar tunes, but soon revs up with finger-snapping classics like “Ruby Baby” and “Keep on Rollin’.” A vintage film of train tracks projected onto rarely used and largely ineffective screens hung along the ceiling oddly accompanies the latter.

It’s a needless distraction. But at this point you’re just settling in and familiarizing yourself with the voices, which are not aiming for any crescendos — yet.

In the third number, “Falling,” Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, serving as the show’s blonde ingénue, comes off pitchy. Things suddenly don’t look so promising. Thankfully, the cast recovers from the early setback.

For a show featuring the greatest hits of the R&B legends’ songbook, every voice must be spot on. These songs were covered by megastars like Elvis Presley and Edith Piaf, and also artists as varied as The Drifters, Ben E. King, The Doobie Brothers, Big Mama Thornton, Peggy Lee and The Coasters, for which lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller wrote 24 chart-topping hits. It’s easy to see why the pair reigns supreme in the pantheon of great songwriters in American popular music.

Director Randy Johnson’s production of the longest-running musical revue in Broadway’s history features a rocking seven-piece orchestra sitting smack in the center of the stage. Singers enter between the aisles, shaking, shimmying and sashaying all the way onto the stage. Occasionally, they head straight into the orchestra pit, as during “Jailhouse Rock” where Levi Kreis delivers a sexy, hip-grinding version on a vintage microphone, shoving aside the pianist to boogie-woogie the keyboard.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

After a few numbers, the singers launch into solos and the show catches fire. Nova Peyton’s powerful voice, coupled with Stephawn P. Stephens’ formidable silken bass (think Teddy Pendergrass), on “Love Me/Don’t” guarantees to raise goose bumps. E. Faye Butler comes out in the first of her solos with a sultry arrangement of “Fools Fall in Love.” The aforementioned Kreis, whose portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis in Broadway’s “Million Dollar Quartet” earned him a Tony Award, kills it again with “I Keep Forgettin’” and we’re off and running.

That tune is followed by a razzmatazz version of “On Broadway,” where costume designer Ilona Somogyi’s hip threads with skinny black ties, black-and-white spats and plaid jackets firmly encapsulate the early ’50s. The throwback bongo drums are the icing on the cake.

Choreographer Parker Esse channels the be-bop/jitterbug era with a bit of fierce hand dancing. Spins, throws, flips and even break dancing (the worm makes an appearance) get thrown in for good measure.

After 18 numbers, Act I ends in a come-to-Jesus moment as the orchestra pit rises up to the stage level for a tambourine-fueled, gospel rendition of “Saved.” Intermission is difficult to accept after getting so pumped up.

The second act packs in 23 more classic numbers. Look for Jay Adriel’s beautiful rendition of “Loving You,” which brings to mind the voice of Johnny Mathis, and Nova on “Hound Dog,” a number she delivers with heart-stopping passion.

Remember “Yakety Yak,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion #9,” “Spanish Harlem” and “I (Who Have Nothing),” the iconic song once covered by Tom Jones? Here Butler, Nova, Levi and Michael J. Mainwaring blend together to add a poignant moment to an evening of hand-clapping, foot-tapping and chair-dancing thrills.

“Smokey Joe’s Café: 
The Songs of Leiber and Stoller” runs through June 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington. For tickets and information on performance times and dates call 202-488-3300 or visit 
www.arenastage.org.

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