Smokey Joe's Cafe - The Songs of Leiber and Stoller -- The Arena Stage brings back Randy Johnson, who successfully directed the hit play 'A Night with Janis Joplin' which was highly successful last season and eventually went to Broadway. This time around he revisits a play that has been around 20 years now. It features the classic rock'n'roll music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller whose music has pretty much been around as long as rock'n'roll itself. This is yet another of a growing list of successful mergers of rock music and theater and this production gives fresh life to this classic music.
There was no let-down with the vocal work of the nine singers, even as one microphone cut off late in the show. They were all well cast, with distinct styles and ranges, which certainly was needed with the male singers performing the doo-wop styled songs. Yet even the four female vocalists all had distinct styles allowing unique interpretations of the many songs. Levi Kreis is a Tony award winner who did a magnificent "Jailhouse Rock" including a bit where he jumped on the piano and banged out a run worthy of Jerry Lee Lewis (oh, and now that I read his resume, I am not surprised to learn that he won his Tony for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis). Frequent Arena Stage performer E. Faye Butler is a real powerhouse who also knows how to control her range. Everyone interpreted the material in a personal and sensible way and it was all quite fresh and did not sound like a tribute band trying to copy a specific sound. The band was a little more subdued than I would have liked (compared to 'Janis' or 'Hair'), but with vocal performances this good, I can see why the music was mixed as it was.
It is hard not to enjoy this show as it covers classic music we have heard for over half a century and will be heard for centuries beyond. With so many songs, I appreciated the many songs I was not familiar with as it showed the many roots and variants of rock'n'roll music. The crowd was surprisingly revved up and into the performances (as my friend noted), which says a lot about this show's quality as this was a preview performance where I would expect a quieter crowd. I was especially happy to attend this performance as at the conclusion, Director Randy Johnson walked out with Mike Stoller himself who flew in to attend the show. Mr. Stoller is still quite spry and in good shape and it was an honor to have him at the show, addressing the crowd, and enjoying the performance of his legendary music.