Fort Worth — If the names Leiber and Stoller don’t ring a bell, then (unless you’re way younger than this reviewer), rock ’n’ roll faves such as “Fools Fall in Love,” “Stand by Me,” and “Hound Dog” probably will. During the 1950s and 1960s—the heyday of rock ’n’ roll—the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller produced dozens of hits for numerous idols of the era—and most particularly for Elvis Presley, with whom the duo had a particularly mutually beneficial relationship.
In 1995, Smokey Joe’s Café, a revue of Leiber and Stoller songs, scored a hit on Broadway; through the rest of this month, Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre presents its own intimate and engaging production of Smokey Joe’s Café, featuring a cast of nine singing, dancing actors accompanied by an instrumental trio.
Smokey Joe’s Café is a revue, and not a play; although the nine actors are assigned character names, the overall effect is one of a kaleidoscope of clever words, moods, and infectious tunes, rather than of plot or character development—although the actors manage to develop some very interesting cross-references throughout the piece. For example, the evergreen “Fools Fall in Love” is presented early in the show as a humorous celebration of the exhilaration of careless love; towards the end, the same song is reprised as a lament, subtly exploring the loss and sorrow inherent in the joy of infatuation.
The extremely simple sets by Rodney Dobbs suggest an urban neighborhood (somewhere close to Sesame Street or Avenue Q) and the casual, rock ’n’ roll-era dresses and pleated slacks (by Barbara O’Donoghue) imply a comfortably bourgeois setting; costume changes and very simple manipulation of sets take the viewer through night clubs, clothing stores, a revival meeting, and a PG-rated version of burlesque, slyly giving the audience a sense of broad cultural experience in modern America. Sometimes the tragic takes on a humorous twist (as in “Saved,” in which a suicidal drunk finds himself swept into a revival meeting), while the everyday experience of “Shoppin’ for Clothes” becomes a nightmare of outsized dancing mannequins and over-extended credit.
Love, lust, and greed abound: men lament the danger of romantic entanglement (in “Poison Ivy”) and women rejoice in their power (“I’m the Boss” and “I’m a Woman”); “Pearl’s a Singer” encapsulates the disappointments of a lifetime in a five minutes, here alternately belted and whispered by Melinda Wood Allen.
Ultimately, the 41 songs themselves are the main attraction, beautifully supported by Jenna Meador’s choreography, which is in turn delivered with unfailing style by the cast. The cast also serves up this buffet of songs with total charisma under the insightful direction of Robert Michael James.
The singing itself, while always serviceable, is the one weak point. The quartet of females (Meador, Allen, Patricia E. Hill and Nikka Morton) are generally strong and flexible, while the quintet of males (Domanick Anton Hubbard, Quintin Jones, Darren McElroy, Chris Ramirez and Oris Phillips, Jr.) are a smooth ensemble when singing together but a little vocally under-nourished on much of the solo work. The instrumental trio of Aimee Hurst Bozarth, Rex Bozarth and Brent Dacus, perched above the stage, accompanies with appropriate assertion.
Jubilee Theatre proclaims the expression of the African-American experience as its principal focus. Leiber and Stoller were both Jewish, however, and the cast itself, while principally African-American, is racially integrated. On a very subtle level, this production reminds of the African-American origins of rock ’n’ roll style (as, for instance, in the blues AAB verse structure predominates in many of Leiber and Stoller’s songs); by re-appropriating music by Jewish-American songwriters, in a style those songwriters appropriated from African-Americans, the show ultimately emphasizes the American part of African-American, Jewish-American, or Euro-American, at a moment when we as a culture are intensely aware of persistent racial inequality and inter-racial tension.
For those who remember these hit songs from when they were new (or relatively new), Smokey Joe’s Café as performed by Jubilee provides a first-rate nostalgia fest; for those too young to remember, it presents an entertaining and captivating encapsulation of a by-gone era of American popular culture.