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Theater Review: “Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller” at Arena Stage

A rollicking production features plenty of familiar hits, as well as some lesser-known tunes.

Austin Colby, Jay Adriel, Levi Kreis, Stephawn P. Stephens, and Michael J. Mainwaring in Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller at Arena Stage. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

No one can accuse the audience at Arena Stage’s Saturday matinee of Smokey Joe’s Café of failing to have a good time. There was clapping and squealing, standing ovations, and dancing in the seats, all mostly from the over-60 set. Even performer Levi Kreis had to break character and laugh at the outsize reception for his rendition of “Jailhouse Rock.” Could throwing articles of clothing onto the stage be far behind?

Maybe there’s just something about Elvis. But those unfamiliar with the catalogue of songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which is celebrated in Smokey Joe’s Café, might be surprised at how many hits were penned by the pair, not only for Presley, but for performers ranging from Ben E. King to the Drifters to Big Mama Thornton. Smokey Joe’s runs through the big hits, whether it be “Yakety Yak,” “Fools Fall in Love,” or “On Broadway,” while still reminding the audience of some of the songwriters’ lesser-known gems.

Those include “Don Juan,” a knowing dismissal of a lover who loses his fortune, sung saucily by Kara-Tameika Watkins; and the stirring “I (Who Have Nothing),” delivered with pathos as a quartet by four of the show’s performers. In this production, director Randy Johnson moves his nine singers through an impressive roster of more than 40 musical numbers, while still keeping the show moving at an aggressive clip. 

Though the multiple color-coordinated costume changes are flashy and the lively band makes for fun eye candy, Smokey Joe’s Café is a show that lives or dies by its cast. One of the early “jukebox musicals” that started to sweep Broadway in the 1990s, Smokey Joe’s relies on stage presence and nostalgia rather than an elaborate set or any semblance of plot to drive the revue. This really isn’t a problem as long as the audience is looking for pure entertainment, and the performers in Arena Stage’s production have energy and talent to spare.

Local stage veteran E. Faye Butler, who just drips charisma, lends her formidable pipes to such numbers as the rollicking gospel hit “Saved” and the coy duet “You’re the Boss” with the twinkly-eyed bass Stephawn P. Stephens. Nova Y. Payton belts out even the highest of notes in another lovely duet with Stephens, “Love Me/Don’t”; she also completely sells the Thornton classic “Hound Dog.” Kreis has perhaps the least conventional voice of the nine performers, but he uses it to soulful effect in songs like “I Keep Forgettin’” and his aforementioned Elvis tribute. The Fichandler Stage’s theater-in-the-round setup can sometimes lead to acoustical challenges for the show’s frequent bursts into four-part harmony, but it’s more of an occasional distraction than a real problem. During Smokey Joe’s Café, all eyes are on the singers and dancers shimmying and pelvic-thrusting their way through an infectious mix of hits.

Smokey Joe’s Café is at Arena Stage through June 8. Running time is about two hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($50 to $99) are available through Arena Stage’s website.