'Smokey Joe's Cafe': Same Old Same Oldies

Elvis has left the building: John Ashley Brown performs
Elvis has left the building: John Ashley Brown performs "Jailhouse Rock" during the Bethesda Theatre's production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe." (By Stan Barouh -- Bethesda Theatre)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 12, 2008

True to its jukebox format, the revival of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at the evolving Bethesda Theatre is a grab bag of song stylings -- decent, middling and lame. How much you'll get out of this evening of easy listenin' depends on your appetite for a placid stroll through the days of rock-and-roll yore, when men were hound dogs and ladies were adept at teaching them how to shimmy.

Based on more than three dozen songs by the prolific team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (their pop standards range from "Poison Ivy" to "Stand by Me"), the show opened on Broadway in March 1995 and stayed there for five years. Although it struggled at times and never quite attained smash-hit status, "Smokey Joe's Cafe" popularized a type of musical built around the existing songbook of pop composers already beloved by baby boomers.

Variations on the theme would follow in "Movin' Out," Twyla Tharp's rock-and-roll Vietnam War ballet set to the music of Billy Joel, and "Mamma Mia!," a goofy book musical fashioned from the pop tunes of Abba. "Smokey Joe's Cafe," however, is sort of the Brand X of the genre. It's just the songs, ma'am, presented one after the other, on and on, into the night.

The production at Bethesda Theatre is new, directed and choreographed by Chet Walker, who with Richard Maltby Jr. and Ann Reinking came up with the idea for the Tony-winning 1999 dance anthology "Fosse." What he has staged here feels a lot like "Smokey Joe's Jr." The songs are for the most part agreeable, the five-piece band plays capably and before you know it, the music stops and the lights come up.

The marquee show in a Carnival cruise nightclub does come to mind at times. The set -- a pair of rolling metal staircases and several floor-to-ceiling panels of fabric that lurch uncertainly back and forth -- looks very flimsy. Hillary Paul's costumes for the cast of nine appear to be a blend of glitter and cheese; in "Jailhouse Rock," the singers are swathed in sparkly prison uniforms. Sporadically, too, black-and-white images are projected onto the movable panels, and perhaps because of how the light is hitting them, they often look dingy and washed out.

A case of sameness infects much of the choreography, although the oddest out-of-the-box choice comes in "Shoppin' for Clothes," an effort at sartorial slapstick that proves to be, er, unsuitable.

One cannot fault the cast for its eagerness, or for its ability to harmonize. ("On Broadway" and "Love Potion No. 9," performed by the men, are particularly enjoyable.) But aside from Aurelia Williams -- whose twist on the Elvis Presley hit "Hound Dog" is the evening's wittiest -- few of these actor-singers convincingly project magnetic pop personalities. Some of them might be better equipped for the demands of "Les Miz" than "Yakety Yak."

Smokey Joe's Cafe, music and lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Directed and choreographed by Chet Walker. Music direction, Josh Tuckman; set, John Whiteman; lighting, Jason Livingston; sound, C. Marlow Seyffert. With Emilee Dupre, John Ashley Brown, Teren Carter, Jasmin Walker, Erich McMillan- McCall, Jennifer Byrne, Alexander Elisa, Miles Johnson. About 2 hours. Through May 11 at Bethesda Theatre, 7719 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. Call 800-551-SEAT or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.

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