Music and theatre have a long history together. Composers have created incidental music to introduce a play or scenes within the play. Playwrights have inserted songs for the characters to sing to each other, possibly a serenading couple, or family sing-along, or entertainment for the characters. Opera and operetta flipped the equation, with singers performing in costumes and sets, adding some acting between and during aria. American musicals mixed in ballet and popular dances, to use music to express the emotions and ideas behind the plot structure. More recently, musical reviews have entered the stage. These range from acting out or narrating the lives of an adored singers, to replicating concert events. What happens when the show completely discards any plot or story-telling, in which to embed the songs? Is Arena Stage’s production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, theatre or concert, or American Bandstand?
I will admit that I did not recognize the team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller as a song writing duo from the 1950’s. However, reading down the list of 38 songs in the show (pondering how they were going to fit all of those into 2 hours), I recognized at least 19 of the titles. I did not associate these with the song writers, but with the singers, who recorded those songs: The Drifters, Peggy Lee, Elvis… Many of these song became the soundtracks to American Graffiti and that movie’s TV sit-com spin-off Happy Days and Shanana. Didn’t Grease already take this time and sound to the stage, with the usual boy-meet-girl-summer-love-heart-break genre?
But, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, other than being the title of one of the songs, gives us no explanation or context on stage for the music. No master-of-ceremony welcomed us to the cafe. The singers were not representing the performers whom we associate with the songs. In fact the cast is listed only as “Company”, and each song in the program include the singer’s first names, not character names. Without character assignment, no one can fill us in on the origins of the songs between tunes. Smokey Joe’s Cafe is more a whirling dream, as if Pandora were beaming only songs from the Lieber and Stoller channel with some great Busby Berkeley dance ensemble numbers.
Theatre purists would purge this production from the stage for lack of at least some attempt to present a plot, narrative, and characters. Music-comedy enthusiasts would prefer to have this production transferred to a music hall, or maybe an out-door summer festival grounds with chablis-and-cheese picnics. Cabaret bar-flies would accept a few of the jazzier numbers, but suggest that the sock-hop would be a better venue for the rest. However, the director, Randy Johnson, clarifies his view of music in the theatre in a quick phrase: “…great songs are three act plays”. Cut the plot-windows and stories-with-the-stories, and Smokey Joe’s Cafe is not one play, but 38 plays in 2 hours. Hey, that is just about the same number of plays that Shakespeare wrote.
The theme of home and families is brought in at the beginning & end of each act (Neighborhood, Yakety Yak). The 1950’s were a time when all those post-war children were becoming teenagers and families were moving from the cities to the suburbs. Neighborhoods were changing and children would soon be “talking back”.
All those teenagers would be Young Bloods, Falling in love, feeling picked on (Charlie Brown), trying to create in unique image (Shoppin’ for Clothes) and learning that Fools Fall in Love. In the process they would learn about some of the pitfalls in life and love (Searching, Trouble, Poison Ivy, Hound Dog, Love Potion #9). Beyond youthful ambition in romance, success might be elusive, as those teens discovered the ceilings that blocked making it big (Don Juan, I Keep Forgetting, On Broadway, Pearl’s a Singer). But, ultimately, the music is about music, whether asking a partner to Dance with Me, exclaiming Baby, That is Rock & Roll, or leaving words behind to Teach Me How to Shimmy.
The band, Company, and artistic teams can only be described at sharp and snappy. Such precision clarifies tunes, for a music genre that became known for three-chord songs and intoxicated, slurred lyrics at many concerts in the next couple of decades, Lieber’s and Stoller’s songs are arranged note-by-note, beat-by-beat. Joseph P. Salasovich outfits the cast in more red-black-and-white dresses and suits, and shining shoes, than most morter-and-brick flag-ship stores keep on the shelves these days.
One of the performers, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, who is also the Dance Captain, gets those Company members with dance talent tapping, and those who are stronger singers positioned such the former groups can make them all look good. She steps out with a pair of legs that articular every muscle all the way up to the point of where you will blush. For the lady’s, Levi Kreis’s rendition of Jailhouse Rock can make them swoon. Beyond making a cheesy song rock, when he steps into the band pit, nudges the piano player to the right, then takes over the rhythm line, followed by some treble rifts, you will be saying, “Okay, he can do more than sing.” But, the tops at singing is E. Faye Butler. She can wail the blues like Ruth Brown, carry a gospel shout like Aretha Franklin, and melt your heart with a jazz ballad like Ella Fitzgerald… Oh, Ruth, Aretha and Ella all in one. You can die happy now.
If you happen to be in Washington, D.C. this summer, because the waterfront is being rebuilt, you cannot do-wop under the boardwalk, so stroll on over the Arena Stage for Smokey Joe’s Cafe.