‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ musical revue at Arena Stage is energetic fun, if light on substance


Stephawn P. Stephens and the cast of Smokey Joe’s Café. (Teresa Wood)

“Teach me how to shimmy,” goes one of the songs in the Leiber and Stoller revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” and shimmying is what the venerable Arena Stage is doing with its energetic revival of this low-calorie showcase.

The hits are all-timers such as “Hound Dog,” “Stand by Me” and “Love Potion No. 9,” yet longtime Arena watchers may question whether this national flagship theater really ought to be shaking its fringe and exercising its muscles chewing such soft bubble gum. As a by-the-numbers stage package of truly great radio staples, “Smokey Joe’s” has never wowed critics, but it’s always been a moderate crowd pleaser. It ran for five years on Broadway in the 1990s, and in the Washington area it’s played the Kennedy Center (1997), the Warner (2001) and the Bethesda Theatre (2008). Arena does it reasonably well, but heads up: “Five Guys Named Moe,” another eager-to-please nostalgic musical revue, is due at Arena in November. Too much sugar can leave an audience toothless.

But if all you want to know is how is “Smokey Joe’s,” here’s the bottom line: It gets pretty good, thanks to that indestructible lineup of Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller tunes (“Spanish Harlem,” “Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy” — a mother lode of hum-alongs) and a handful of really live wires in the cast.

Levi Kreis, a 2010 Tony Award winner for his explosive performance as Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet,” prowls and smolders through “I Keep Forgettin’ ” and “Jailhouse Rock.” His cockiness suits the hormone-driven teen tunes to a T. Kreis’s haughty rendition of “Treat Me Nice” is wonderfully smacked down by Nova Y. Payton, who coolly looks him in the eye and backs him around the four sides of the in-the-round Fichandler stage as she rousingly sings “Hound Dog.”

Director Randy Johnson, who helmed the recent hit “A Night With Janis Joplin” at Arena and then on Broadway, puts the seven-piece band in the center of the stage, leaving the periphery to the singers. That leads to a lot of strutting around the block and more playing to the small corners (rather than to the bigger room) than is strictly desirable. The staging, choreography and even the frequently changed costumes — some of which, like the peculiar tie-dye jailbird-striped jeans and shirts sported by Kreis and some sidekicks — are often notably antsy, as if trying to surpass the comedy and drive of songs like “Young Blood,” “Charlie Brown” and “Little Egypt.”

Smokey Joe’s Cafe is now at Arena Stage through June 8. Directed by Randy Johnson. Words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. (Winyan Soo Hoo/The Washington Post)

Still, the band, led by musical director and pianist Rick Fox, is steady, and after some sound issues that left the softer singing all but inaudible early in Thursday’s show, the performance built some serious steam. E. Faye Butler reliably inaugurates a sassy “Kansas City” with Kreis and Payton, while big, mellow-voiced Stephawn P. Stephens shares some fetching duets with Payton (“Love Me”/“Don’t”) and Butler (“You’re the Boss).”

Singer-dancer Ashley Blair Fitzgerald puts a high shine on Parker Esse’s choreography even before she gets to “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” and the rest of the ensemble — Jay Adriel, Austin Colby, Michael J. Mainwaring and Kara-Tameika Watkins — cheerfully keeps up with Johnson’s generally brisk pace.

Broadway blandifies most of the pop it touches, and at times that’s true here. “Smokey Joe’s” blows by at a Vegas clip, zipping through 39 songs in two hours, including intermission. But the body of songwriting work is magnificent and that last half-hour really lifts off, so by the end of Thursday’s show the audience was thrilled to celebrate the evening’s surprise special guest: a beaming Mike Stoller.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller

Words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Directed by Randy Johnson. Set and projection designer, Caite Hevner Kemp; lights, Dan Ozminkowski; costumes, Ilona Somogyi; sound design, Carl Casella. Through June 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. NW. About two hours. Tickets $50 to $119, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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