Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
If Smokey Joe’s Cafe were peddling its energetically ersatz rock ‘n’ roll stylings in a hundred-seat hall like Source Theatre or the Marquee Lounge, where no patron is more than six rows (or tables) from the stage, the thought might occur to you that the show could hold its own in a larger venue. Just how wrong you would be is now being demonstrated at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
An inexplicable Broadway hit (in the comparatively tiny 914-seat Virginia Theatre), this slick, soulless revue thrusts nine performers into a variety of spotlights and has them skip antiseptically through 38 jukebox faves and not-so-faves penned by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. At the 2,300-seat Opera House, the show looks small and cheap, stranded midstage in an ugly setting that was clearly designed for a much tighter proscenium arch.
Give it credit, at least, for recognizable tunes, since these guys once pretty much owned the credit line on Billboard’s pop charts. In 1959 alone, their names were attached to “Kansas City,” “Charlie Brown,” “Poison Ivy,” “Love Potion #9,” “Along Came Jones,” and three other Top 100 hits. In other years they wrote “Hound Dog,” “Stand by Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Ruby Baby,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Is That All There Is?,” among others. If you’re in your late 40s or early 50s, they provided much of the soundtrack to your youth.
Which means, at least theoretically, that Leiber/Stoller tunes ought to inspire the sort of nostalgia in graying baby boomers that Fats Waller tunes did for their folks and that a show celebrating them has the potential to be a latter-day Ain’t Misbehavin’. Might be, too, if the songs weren’t being compromised by Broadway-style orchestrations, omnidirectional amplification that makes every lyric seem lip-synced, and staging that suggests that the director’s notions of rock ‘n’ roll are mostly derived from Grease!.
In fairness, part of the problem is that unlike Waller’s songs, which were sung by virtually every artist who could afford the sheet music, the Leiber/Stoller oeuvre hails from that record-happy period when tunes were first becoming irrevocably identified with their original interpreters. Today, if you’re going to sing “Spanish Harlem” and you’re not Ben E. King, you’d better either be Aretha Franklin so you can impose your own personality on the lyrics or be backed up by a staging conceit that justifies competing with audience memories. In Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Michael-Demby Cain has neither of those advantages, so when he does reasonably nicely by the song, the effect is merely bland. Ditto the uninspired “On Broadway” done by the show’s men and the mildly staged “I’m a Woman” done by its women.
In fact, only one of the better-known numbers really escapes that fate: “Hound Dog,” tamed and reclaimed by a growling Virginia Woodruff (subbing for Alltrinna Grayson on opening night). The rest, even when they’re ably sung, feel like lounge-act cover versions.
And less familiar songs fare even worse, again with a single exception: an amusing Act 1 gold-digger number called “Don Juan” that allows a vixenish Reva Rice to fetchingly whip her 20-foot feather boa and pretend (with a black chair and matching stiletto heels and short dress) that she got left behind when Chicago left town. Just how few decent staging ideas have occurred to director Jerry Zaks can be gauged from his second-act repetition of this one. It’s a desperate ploy, and it’s counterproductive, since it mostly makes you conscious of how much more effective Rice would be if she were purring Kander and Ebb tunes.
Not one of the show’s problems can be laid at the feet of the performers. They’re allespecially pint-size Darrian C. Ford and brassy Kim Ceapumping away up there as if sheer energy could somehow make songs that were designed to be heard at sock hops and on car radios work in a stage context. The trouble is that at its core the material isn’t theatrical. It’s designed for sing-along venues where lyrics that repeat are a plus. In a revue, lyrics that repeat are a problem, because they instantly get dullunless, of course, a director can keep goosing new life into them with staging fillips.
Zaks isn’t quite the guy to do this. An adept stager of dramas and serious-minded farces ranging from Six Degrees of Separation to Wenceslas Square, he has a peculiarly sterile touch when it comes to musicals. His Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls got the basic moves right without ever seeming to have much to do with joy or heart. His Anything Goes was fast-paced, colorful, and deadly dull. Still, his stagings are never actively incompetent, and New York’s critics tend to think they’re more fun than whatever Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza is playing down the block. So they run and run, and Zaks keeps getting work.
For Smokey Joe’s Cafe, having come up with a production concept that has all the spark and personality of a theme-park revue, he can barely rouse himself to supply context for the numbers. There’s plenty of movementby performers, by scenic panels, by chairsbut it’s mostly either random or obvioussomething that might also be said for transitions and song positions. The show is going nowhere, and feels it.
Helping not at all are perfunctory costumes by William Ivey Long and an unattractive stagewide scrim on which Heidi Ettinger has painted an enormous, out-of-register (for reasons that escape me…maybe she meant to hand out 3-D glasses) automobile interior. And actively getting in the way is Tony Meola’s overbearing sound design, which robs the singers of any semblance of control over volume or vocal tone. So much so that when one performer reached deep inside, found a big note, and having found it held it, her voice getting louder and louder as her breath should have been giving out, it was impossible to tell who was doing more workshe or the guy manning the sound board. Once that doubt arose, she might as well have been whispering. CP