Blues on First 

Proto-rock & rollers Leiber and Stoller shine in Smokey Joe’s Café.

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It is one of the great pieces of unappreciated irony in music history that a lot of the great “black music” supposedly stolen by white artists in the early days of rock & roll was written by a couple of nice Jewish boys.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller emerged from multiethnic neighborhoods in Baltimore and New York, respectively, immersed in the sounds of rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie and doo-wop. They became the writers and arrangers behind vocal groups with legendary names like Coasters, Searchers and Drifters—not to mention a guy named Elvis. Their work slipped effortlessly from the orchestral beauty of “Stand By Me” to the novelty energy of “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown,” to the feminist anthem of “I’m a Woman.” And when you hear nearly 40 of their compositions collected in one place—as in Pioneer Theatre Company’s jumping production of Smokey Joe’s Café—you’re left with the conclusion that if a great song of the 1950s and 1960s didn’t come out of the Brill Building, it came from Leiber and Stoller.

Nostalgia plays a huge part in the appeal of musical revues like Smokey Joe’s Café, but PTC also knows how to give a show like this the energetic staging it deserves. The company wisely enlisted Patti D’Beck—who directed and choreographed PTC’s dynamic 2001 production of Sophisticated Ladies—to give the show snap and crackle. D’Beck in turn wisely brought back costume designer Susan Branch, whose outfits for Ladies were almost enough to bring down the house. The result is eye candy almost as sweet as the ear candy.

As was the case in Sophisticated Ladies, no real plot connects the musical numbers. The five-man, four-woman company opens with a rendition of “Neighborhood”—set against a cityscape backdrop and fire escape-styled staircase—before launching into a succession of solos, duets and quartets. The latter provide the most infectious entertainment, as the harmony grouping of Derrick Baskin, Wilkie Ferguson III, David Jackson and Nicholas Ward deliver marvelous renditions of “Searchin’”, “Love Potion No. 9”, “Poison Ivy” and “On Broadway,” among others. Ward in particular combines his velvety bass crooning with elastic facial clowning to give the up-tempo numbers even more bounce.

In fact, the quartet numbers are so much fun that several of the solos feel listless and out of place by comparison. While the singers come equipped with some killer pipes—Gabrielle Goyette lets it rip like Patti LaBelle, and Mary Fanning Driggs gives a torchy growl to “Pearl’s a Singer”—Broadway-style belting doesn’t always feel like the right choice for the work of two precocious tunesmiths from the neighborhood. They’re showstopper arrangements for the wrong kind of songs.

If anyone can stop a local musical revue, though, it’s Susan Branch. Her magnificent costumes practically become characters in the parade of quick changes: the skintight catsuits of “Trouble”; the fringed mini-dress in “Teach Me How to Shimmy”; a 20-some-odd-foot feather boa in “Don Juan”; and matching silver suits for “On Broadway.” It’s yet another MVP-caliber technical performance by Branch—it ain’t often that a crowd bursts into applause at the appearance of an article of clothing.

In a production where the spectacle and the built-in familiarity do most of the work, it would be easy to conclude that a production like Smokey Joe’s Café skates on good will. That may be true when the singers break into “Jailhouse Rock,” but there’s something more going on when even obscure tunes like “Little Egypt” and the gospel rave-up “Saved” can pack just as much of a wallop. These may be songs by two guys who knew the blues well enough to write “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton when they were both 19 years old, but nothing about Smokey Joe’s Café brings you down. Leiber and Stoller may have made a musical out of a greatest hits collection, but let’s face it: They had it coming.

SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East, Dec. 3-20, 581-6961

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