WASHINGTON, May 13, 2014 – Last weekend, Arena Stage kicked off its month-long run of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” a smokin’ hot all-music revue highlighting the songbook of music and lyric vets Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
When this show originally opened on Broadway back in 1995, it was almost an instant hit. Nominated for Tony Awards, its original cast recording copped a Grammy a year later, and the show has been in and out of circulation ever since.
We first saw the show back in the 1990s in a local production that chopped a few songs from the roster and added a minimal “Joe the Bartender” scenario of bar scenes to create the frame for a minimal, meandering plot keying the songs off various characters hanging out in the bar.
Arena’s current production goes back to the original concept, creating a mostly upbeat, energetic, nonstop show that relies on the songs and the lyrics rather than an imposed plot to create various mini story arcs.
Bottom line: While we confess to not being entirely certain how this show got its speakeasy title, the irresistible music and hyperkinetic performances on opening night gave the full house its money’s worth of entertainment and likely even a bit more.
If the songwriting duo of Leiber and Stoller doesn’t exactly ring a bell for some, these are the guys who combined to bring us a number of golden moldy oldie R&B hits in the ‘50s and ‘60s like “Kansas City,” “Young Blood,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “On Broadway,” “Charlie Brown,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion #9,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” and more.
Forty-two songs in all (counting the occasional reprise) are split into two acts that immerse you in an earlier era when good tunes and fresh, meaningful (and occasionally sneaky) lyrics were how you defined a 45 RPM single’s A side, and most of “Smokey Joe’s” roster of songs—even the more obscure ones—hold up phenomenally even 50+ years after they hit the airwaves.
Given the incredible array of songs in this revue, Arena, director Randy Johnson, and choreographer Parke Esse chose to showcase the songs and performers, largely eschewing scenery and props, a good choice for the Fichandler’s theater-in-the-round space.
Rick Fox and his full-speed-ahead R&B band occupy center space in this production, occupying a moving platform that either takes center stage or drops beneath the main level into pit orchestra mode depending on the song or setting.
Sharply angled video screens hang overhead above the band, occasionally projecting vintage black and white stills and film clips from the decades in question. Unfortunately, neither the imagery nor the quality of the visuals happen to be very good and their contribution to the show was negligible.
Around the periphery of the stage area, it’s minimalism all the way with a few occasionally illuminated benches and platforms and a movable spiral staircase interspersed here and there to suggest a mood or a place.
Aside from that, it’s up to this production’s multi-talented cast of singer-dancers and a lot of quick-change costuming to make the magic happen, and for the most part they did a bang-up job on opening night.
We say for the most part because the first two or three numbers started out a little wobbly, with both the band and the cast a little less than surefooted on their timing and entries. We’d chalk this off to opening night jitters, however, which can give an occasional case of butterflies even to seasoned stage veterans. By the third or fourth song, both the band and cast were firing on all cylinders resulting in a dynamite evening for all.
As in all good revues, the cast performed as an ensemble, while also breaking up into smaller vocal groups as well as spotlighting individual solo numbers. In alpha order, “Smokey Joe’s” cast includes Jay Adriel, E. Faye Butler, Austin Colby, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Levi Kreis, Michael J. Mainwaring, Nova Y. Payton, Stephawn P. Stephens and Kara-Tameika Watkins.
In addition to Mr. Fox who doubles on keyboard, band musicians include assistant music director and second keyboardist James Davis, Jr., George Hummel (tenor and baritone sax), Steven Walker (guitar), Dan Hall (bass), Danny Villanueva (assorted percussion instruments) and Carroll Dashiell III on drums.
The sound system—key to any good-sounding rock-style revue—was crisp and clear almost throughout, which helped clarify the already exemplary diction of the singers. That’s key in a production like this, whose music dates from a time when lyrics still flowed like simple poetry and contained at times touching and surprisingly complex expressions of love and devotion, much of which has been left behind in pop music since the late 1970s.
One notable glitch in the sound system occurred near the end of Act II as the production cranked up for its big ensemble finale. As the band and a subset of singers launched into “I (Who Have Nothing),” Michael J. Mainwaring’s mike* went snap, crackle, pop, threatening to ruin the song. As soon as the sound crew located the offending mike, the only choice they had was to cut it off as the remainder of the show was segueway to the finale, offering no chance to swap out the offending instrument.
But surprise: this unfortunate issue only served as a challenge to Mr. Mainwaring, who, upon realizing he was without amplification for the show’s remaining trio of numbers, simply doubled his vocal output. His voice remained audible nearly 70% of the time thereafter, even without amplification, quite an incredible feat in an era when pretty much the only vocalists who can project like that without help sing for the Washington National Opera or the Met.
A big hat tips to Mr. Mainwaring for successfully overcoming this issue. The audience noted the same thing and accorded the singer an extended and well-deserved shout of approval.
“Smokey Joe’s Café” is not a show that will change the world or give a new spin on life. But it’s a lively, snappy, big-hearted, great-spirited celebration of R&B’s Golden Age. On opening night, the show had the audience of aging Boomers singing right along while delighted Gen Xers and Millennials alike also got into the spirit of this blast from the past.
With the warmer weather finally upon us and summer vacation beckoning ahead, “Smokey Joe” might be just the pure entertainment break most Washingtonians will need before the Election 2016 mudslinging commences in earnest. If you’re looking for irresistible music, energetic singing, and just plain fun minus the political and philosophical overtones and angst, “Smokey Joe’s Café” could be the perfect show for you.
“Smokey Joe’s Café” continues at the Arena’s Fichandler at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC. The Green Line’s Waterfront Station is only a couple of blocks away.
For Tickets and Information, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or visit Arena’s “Smokey Joe” page here.
* Call me old-fashioned, but I used to run soundboards as a freelancer back in the 1960s and 1970s, and each “pot” on those massive, gray clunkers used to control one instrument or microphone, the latter of which was called a “mike.”
I have no clue as to when this simple term mysteriously morphed into “mic.” But I regard the currently-in-vogue spelling as supremely silly. Worse, from a visual standpoint, it encourages the reader to imagine pronouncing a short vowel instead of the proper long one. Ergo, I will continue to employ the old spelling, regarding the new one as a momentary affectation. Like spaghetti-thin ties, “mike” will make a triumphal return. Some day.