'Smokey Joe's Cafe' is a breezy, bouncy evening devoted to the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote an amazing number of hit songs during my youth, including "Stand by Me," "Jailhouse Rock," "Love Potion No. 9" and, of course, the immortal "Hound Dog."
Although I heard these songs when I went to sock hops (in an era like ours, which sets such store by shoe labels, are there still sock hops?), this, as you might imagine, was not my music.
Already a lost soul, when my friends were buying Elvis singles, I was buying original cast albums. This, I'm afraid, puts me at a disadvantage in evaluating "Smokey Joe," because I'm so aware of the difference between these songs and theater music.
Theater music presupposes characters and story. These songs presuppose you want to clap your hands and dance.
There's nothing wrong with that, but why would you want to do it in a theater, especially at Broadway prices?
As it happens, "Smokey Joe" does tell visual stories to give its songs some momentum. Victor Trent Cook, for example, short and googly-eyed, sings a plaintive version of "Treat Me Nice" to B.J. Crosby, who doesn't take kindly to his plea. Crosby, whose lungs are probably capacious enough to support heavier-than-air-flight, responds with a ferociously accusatory "[You Ain't Nothin' But a] Hound Dog."
There is also a loopy sequence in which Cook goes "Shoppin' for Clothes," in a store in which the suits - of the zoot variety - dance.
As to the derivation of these narrative fragments, the credits to "Smokey Joe's Cafe" are almost as complex as those of an overproduced Hollywood movie. There are separate credits for "Original Concept" and "Co-Conceived With Additional Musical Staging."
All this to-do over conceptualization might make more sense if the songs had any depth or complexity or if they had the subtext of the great Fats Waller songs used in "Ain't Misbehavin"' or the sense of history of those in "Black and Blue."
But a great deal of the songs' charm is their simplicity and directness, and there is great virtue in the fact that they were written to fill no more than three minutes on each side of a 45-rpm record.
Director Jerry Zaks keeps the show bubbling merrily along. He is aided mightily by Joey McKneely, who has devised simple dance steps that highlight the innocent rhythms and spirit of the music. (The terpsichorean high point is DeLee Lively's "Teach Me How to Shimmy," in which she proves a fabulous instructor, wearing a dress that accentuates her every shake, wittily designed by William Ivey Long.)
The music itself, even if it doesn't have much emotional range or variety, is wildly infectious, particularly the way it's sung by the sensationally talented cast. Here, of course, I have an advantage.
Having no ancient 45s in my collection, I am, as far as this music is concerned, practically a virgin.
Having seen Chris Walken's "Him," I know a lot about Elvis, but I can't make many other comparisons with the classic renditions of these songs. As far as I was concerned, the singers made the music sound wonderfully fresh, especially when they do close harmony or when Cook and Crosby do gospel coloratura.
Whether "Smokey Joe" is theater, I'm not sure. But it's a whole lot of fun.
The anonymous narrator of "On Broadway," that timeless anthem of ragged-edged ambition, could probably never have imagined that making it on the Great White Way would take the form it assumes in "Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller," the musical revue that opened at the Virginia Theater last night.
No sooner does the orchestra begin the opening vamp for the song, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, than the audience roars in affectionate recognition of a tune that is tattooed on the memory of most American adults. But what follows is of a very different ilk from the haunted-sounding version made famous by the Drifters in 1963. The rhythms have been souped up, with a hint of a disco beat. And the song is performed by a sturdy-voiced quartet of men in sharkskin suits in a gymnastic, hybrid dance style that incorporates elements of voguing and Latin ballroom.
With their head microphones snaking visibly over their faces, they look a bit like a back-up team for Madonna. It's a snappy enough rendition. But the throbbing ache of the original is long gone.
"Smokey Joe's Cafe," directed by Jerry Zaks with musical staging by Joey McKneely, is a strangely homogenized tribute to one of popular music's most protean songwriting teams, whose works have been immortalized by talents as varied as Elvis Presley, Big Mama Thornton, the Coasters and Peggy Lee. There has obviously been a decision not to go for literal period nostalgia, so the songs are freed from their distinctive original contexts.
In theory, this isn't a bad idea; it sidesteps historical irony and note-by-note comparisons with the legendary source material. (It was smart, for example, to let Victor Trent Cook, a small, amazingly agile-voiced man who looks nothing like Elvis Presley, do the one full-fledged Elvis imitation in the show.)
But the approach also lends itself to a certain level of sanitizing peppiness that can recall the way Top 40 hits used to be transformed into revue numbers for television shows like Carol Burnett's. This bookless musical is generally polished, although the segues between numbers can be strained, and has a hard-working nine-member cast that features some big, crowd-pleasing voices.
But for the most part, the grit has been carefully removed from the songs, their appealing ragged edges stitched into a uniform smoothness. While thankfully avoiding broad, ironic winks at the past, the performers have been encouraged to find the cuteness in the numbers, in ways that defang their sly sexuality and the soft-pedaled angst that made the Leiber and Stoller songs so appealing to alienated teen-agers.
Listening to the blaring, feel-good gospel version of "Saved" (performed by B. J. Crosby, a woman with a piercing bugle voice the size of Nell Carter's), you won't understand why it was considered sacrilegious when LaVern Baker recorded it in 1961. "Teach Me How to Shimmy" is turned into a silly visual joke with bodies vibrating like out-of-control cement mixers. And the heartbeak of "There Goes My Baby" is parodied to the point of burlesque.
Curiously, aside from a rousing, straightforward finale rendition of "Stand by Me," the songs that work the best are not the familiar standards. "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown" and "Kansas City" all pass in a chipper blur. But a little-known railroad blues number, "Keep On Rollin'," is staged and sung as a four-part harmony with simple, resonant eloquence. And Brenda Braxton, who suggests a sensuous cross between Josephine Baker and Diahann Carroll, momentarily finds the show's libido with "Don Juan," a jazzy gold-digger's song with the refrain "Don Juan, your money's gone, and when your money's gone, your baby's gone."
The way that song has been staged, as a mild sendup of a Dietrich cabaret routine, is charming. So are the songs in which the men move to rhythm-and-blues cadences like synchronized parts of one perfectly oiled machine. And the novelty number "Shoppin' for Clothes," in which three seemingly bodiless suits tempt and threaten a customer, has the theatrical pizazz one associates with Mr. Zaks.
Too often, though, the performers are simply singing into space without any ostensible reason for being there; they can all belt, and often do so in applause-milking ways that evoke the contestants on "Star Search," but they usually seem viscerally disconnected from their material. Unlike the more intimate and idiosyncratic "Ain't Misbehavin'," the wonderful Fats Waller revue, the show seldom allows its cast to develop personal relationships with their songs or, with a few exceptions, to emerge as individuals.
Adrian Bailey has a gentle, understated way with a ballad that can be a relief from the more hard-sell tactics at which Ms. Crosby excels. And Mr. Cook lends an abject, angry quality to "I (Who Have Nothing)" that rightly brings down the house and gives the evening a shot of searing emotions. "Neighborhood," the song that opens the show and is repeated in fragments through the evening, is a paean to a vanished time and place that speaks of "faded pictures in my scrapbook." But what exactly are the time and place being evoked here?
Heidi Landesman's collage-effect paneled sets, with images as generically nostalgic as a glass Coca-Cola bottle and as far-flung as a Brassai-inspired scene of European cafe life, should give you your bearings. This is the cross-cultural, generation-blending world that is post-modernism's most conspicuous legacy to the Broadway musical, a land that can also be visited in the current productions of "Tommy" and "Grease!"
This can actually be a dangerous place for a show without the anchoring context of a book, story line or even concert patter. And in drifting into its own show-biz time warp, "Smokey Joe" seems to have left much of its heart and soul back in the old neighborhood.
Why are these people always smiling? Sure, many of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's songs --"Love Potion #9, ""Charlie Brown,""Yakety Yak"-- are cute rock novelties. But some tap a deeper, bluesier vein, though you'd hardly know it from "Smokey Joe's Cafe," an interminably upbeat nightclub revue being passed off as a Broadway musical. A smile is its umbrella.
While "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is the product of some of Broadway's most accomplished practitioners, it's junk unworthy of their talents and at best a cynical exercise in product manufacturing. A slick songfest put across by some attractive singers, it makes Broadway look like little more than a launching pad for what will undoubtedly be a lucrative road show. It also provides several numbers that will surely look good on the Tony telecast in June, which may ultimately be the most important service "Smokey Joe" renders the industry.
The show may do well with the tourist crowd, but it's likely to replicate the underwhelming box office performance three years ago of the equally chipper "Five Guys Named Moe" rather than strike the gold of "Ain't Misbehavin' " in 1978.
Leiber and Stoller extended the life of Tin Pan Alley into the rock era, their songs -- anecdotes with great hooks -- blenderizing the blues for the exploding AM radio market. When Elvis Presley appropriated "Hound Dog" from Big Mama Thornton, the young team didn't exactly protest; though the King gender-switched the song and rendered it incoherent, he gave them their first hit.
Leiber and Stoller may well have lain some of the groundwork for the rock that rolled thereafter, but their songs are weightless compared to the work of legendary songwriting teams like Lennon and McCartney or Motown's Holland/Dozier/Holland, to cite just two examples.
Here are nine singers -- five men, four women -- on a Heidi Landesman set best described as rock limbo: a red freeform fire escape framed by several false prosceniums and sliding panels, all gauzily decorated with music trademarks from the '50s and '60s -- Coasters records, Elvis, etc.
For two hours -- including a 25 minute intermission more customary at opera houses -- the singers are shuffled in differing configurations to deliver 39 songs plus a couple of reprises. The show often looks like those TV spots for golden oldies radio stations, where cab drivers and secretaries lipsynch Carole King and Temptations songs, a consequence in part of the disembodied voices resulting from the miking.
Indeed, the opening ensemble number, "Neighborhood," is completely disconcerting because it's impossible to tell who's singing and one finds oneself frantically searching to see whose lips are moving at a given phrase.
The news isn't completely bad. All of the cast members are good, and three are outstanding: B. J. Crosby, who brings down the house with Aretha-inspired beltings of "Hound Dog" and "Fools Fall in Love" (though she also has to endure a let's-make-fun-of-the-fat-girl number early on); Pattie Darcy Jones, who puts "Pearl's a Singer" across with great feeling and jazzy nuance; and Victor Trent Cook, whose amazing falsetto launches "I (Who Have Nothing)" into the stratosphere and is literally the show's high point.
DeLee Lively is just that in a sexy "Teach Me How to Shimmy" (but why don't the guys get all hot 'n' bothered?), and the male quartet harmonizing gorgeously in "Keep on Rollin' " really does recall the Coasters. But "On Broadway," which should be a soulful anthem, is botched on the upbeat, and too many of the other songs get the gladhand treatment, too.
Joey McNeely contributes some appealing, if generic, dance breaks, but if the extraordinary gifts of director Jerry Zaks are in evidence anywhere here, they went by me. William Ivey Long has dressed the men as sexily as the women, and Timothy Hunter's lighting is fine. Note to musicians' Local 802: Anyone who thinks a synthesizer can be mistaken for a violin should sit in on "Spanish Harlem" before the next negotiation.
At the Supper Club or Rainbow & Stars, "Smokey Joe's" might be a good chaser to a couple of drinks. At the beautifully refurbished Virginia, it's in the wrong, well, neighborhood.