Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller met as teenagers in Los Angeles, and were one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most prolific songwriting team.
The legendary duo was responsible for hundreds of hit songs, many considered among the greatest rock songs of all time. Eschewing simple love-song formulas, Leiber, who died in 2011, and Stoller borrowed playfully from the vernacular youth speech and slang of the day, imbuing their songs with a potent theatricality that was more than just musically satisfying. From “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown” to “Jailhouse Rock” and “Love Potion No. 9,” Leiber and Stoller’s songs were pure, infectious fun.
In 1995, one of Broadway’s biggest hits was Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a giddily entertaining, thoroughly plotless stage revue featuring 40 of Leiber and Stoller’s best songs. Named for the song of the same title, itself originally written for the 1950s doo-wop band the Robins, Smokey Joe’s Cafe—which has just opened a three-weekend run at Sixth Street Playhouse—is a big bouncing ball of nostalgia, with no dialogue whatsoever. Just songs, songs, songs, flowing from one to the next like a jukebox stuck in overdrive.
Directed by first-time director Alise Girard, who’s choreographed several of Sixth Street’s recent shows, the show features nine performers who take turns bringing this hit parade of tunes to life through Girard’s inventively kitschy chorography.
The songs are a heady blend of less familiar works—”Pearl’s a Singer,” “Neighborhood,” “Dance with Me,” “I Keep Forgettin'”—and tunes that evoke an instantaneous jolt of affection and sentimental recollection—”On Broadway,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me.”
Backed up by a first-rate band under the direction of Mateo Dillaway, the tunes unspool on a set that resembles a 1950s dance show. Girard keeps things spinning, with plenty of clever bits of business worked into the performances of the songs, spanning the emotional spectrum from puppy love to serious heartbreak.
Each performer is given an opportunity to display his or her individual gifts—for belting out a tune, dancing up a storm or engaging in wacky physical comedy—ultimately transforming the rather thin undertaking into a robust and energetic young artist showcase.
After all, Smokey Joe’s Cafe is basically a celebration of an art form born of youthful dreams, designed to make us feel young, or feel young all over again. In the words of the song that ends the show, baby, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.