Smokey Joe's Café, the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history, is a must-see musical. It will really rock Raleigh Little Theatre's Rose Garden Amphitheatre June 11-26.
This musical salute to the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller opened at the Virginia Theatre on March 2, 1995 and ran for nearly five years. It received seven Tony Award® nominations, including a nomination for Best Musical.
Smokey Joe's Café, guest-directed for RLT by Alison Lawrence, contains 40 chart-topping songs, such as "On Broadway," "Charlie Brown," "Poison Ivy," "Love Potion #9," "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Stand By Me." It is ironic that two Jewish boys named Leiber and Stoller penned many of the greatest hits of the African-American singers and super groups of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Ben E. King, The Drifters, and The Coasters — not to mention white superstars, such as Elvis Presley and The Monkees.
"A number of years ago," recalls Alison Lawrence, "one of my voice students wanted to work on performing a song called 'Don Juan' from this show. I hadn't heard it, so I went and got a copy of the CD. I listened to the whole show and was flooded with memories of growing up in the late 1950s with three older sisters and hearing all of these songs on the radio. I was amazed how many of them I knew and really liked.
"Then about a year after that," she explains, "I saw some clips of the show being performed on a morning talk show. It was the song 'I'm a Woman,' and I thought that it would be a fabulous show to be in. Little did I know I would end up directing it."
Lawrence adds, "This is the music of my childhood, and it just brought back some great memories of a simpler life style and a more enjoyable life. I also have a fascination for 'story songs,' and this show is one right after the other. They are fun stories, and some of them are connected in the context of this show.
"I have to believe," she says, "that Leiber and Stoller also had the connection in mind when they wrote them. What I like most has been the discovery process of finding the connections of each song and the underlying meaning. When these guys were writing rock 'n' roll tunes, they were considered to be immoral, dirty, and rebellious. So, finding the 'hidden code' in each of the songs has been a lot of fun for all of us."
Lawrence says, "There is no plot in terms of a book or dialogue to Smokey Joe's Café, but it is certainly more than a musical revue. The underlying plot is that a group of kids have returned to 'the neighborhood' after exploring the world and growing up. They reminisce and get reacquainted with one another through the music that was part of their adolescence, teenage years, young adulthood and, finally, adulthood.
"If you listen to the words of the very first song, 'In the Neighborhood,'" Lawrence claims, "it tells the plot; and then you take off on a musical thrill ride through all their adventures of loves won and lost, friendships through fun and hard times, sisterhood, brotherhood and, most importantly, being there for one another no matter what."
Besides director Alison Lawrence, the production team includes choreographer Carrie Santiago, musical director Glenn Mehrbach, scenic designer Rick Young, lighting designer: Sonya Dowhaluk , and costume designer Vicki Olson. The cast includes Jay Brown, Anne-Caitlin Donohue, Peggy Hayes, L-Jae Levine, Charlie McNeill, Dexter Morgan, Lavora R. Mountain, Robbie Phillips, and Yolanda Williams Rabun.
In describing the challenge of staging Smokey Joe's Café out of doors, Lawrence sys, "First of all, since this is all music without any dialogue or narration, and since dance was an integral part of this music and era (the 1950s and 1960s), there is not one number that does not require either full out synchronized dance reminiscent of The Coasters and The Drifters or some style of choreographed movement."
For Baby Boomers, Smokey Joe's Café will be a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane. For more recent generations, these solid-gold hits from their parents' and grandparents' glory days will seem surprisingly contemporary. Don't miss Smokey Joe's Café.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents Smokey Joe's Café Friday-Sunday, June 11-13, 17-20, and 24-26, at 8:30 p.m. in RLT's Rose Garden Amphitheatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15, except special $11 senior and student rate for Sunday performances. 919/821-3111. Note 1: All performances are wheelchair accessible. Note 2: There will be audio description for those with visual disabilities at the June 13th performance. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/smokey.htm [inactive 6/04]. Smokey Joe's Café: http://www.smokeyjoescafe.com/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=4286. Internet Movie Database (2000 TV Movie): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0369945/.