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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Smokey Joe's Café - The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
Arena Stage

Also see Susan's review of Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog)



With a knockout cast and staging that never slows for a minute, Arena Stage's glorious production of Smokey Joe's Café - The Songs of Leiber and Stoller is a crowd-pleaser of the highest degree.

Jerry Leiber (1933-2011) and Mike Stoller (born 1933 and in attendance on opening night) wrote many of the most famous and easily recognizable songs of the 1950s and after, including "Yakety Yak," "Spanish Harlem," "On Broadway," "I'm a Woman," "Love Potion #9," "Poison Ivy" and "Stand by Me." Smokey Joe's Café, the longest-running revue in Broadway history, brings out the theatricality of the lyrics and showcases the authors' versatility.

Director Randy Johnson, last represented at Arena by One Night with Janis Joplin, and high-powered choreographer Parker Esse have brought together nine magnetic performers to make their way, singly and in groups, through a wide swath of the Leiber-Stoller songbook. On the Fichandler's in-the-round stage, they strut, cavort, and sway around the central bandstand and regularly appear in the aisles.

Where to start? Tony Award winner Levi Kreis unleashes his vocal power and his piano-playing skill—not to mention his blue suede shoes—in "Jailhouse Rock." Helen Hayes Award recipients E. Faye Butler and Nova Y. Payton both smolder and belt in a succession of numbers, most notably "Fools Fall in Love" (Butler) and "Hound Dog" (Payton). Kara-Tameika Watkins makes the most of "Don Juan," while Ashley Blair Fitzgerald shows off her sizzling dance moves in "Teach Me How to Shimmy." And Michael J. Mainwaring, Austin Colby, Jay Adriel, and smooth-voiced Stephawn P. Stephens are accomplished singers and dancers nailing material from the goofy "Little Egypt" and "Searchin'" to the sleek "There Goes My Baby."

Musical director Rick Fox, conducting from the piano, leads six other musicians in an almost non-stop performance that powers on through to the curtain call and after. The two-hour performance, with one intermission, flies past as it builds on strength after strength.

Even the look of the show is spot-on. Caite Hevner Kemp's functional set, with its levitating platforms and ramps, shines under Dan Ozminkowski's lighting design and Kemp's projections. Ilona Somogyi's costume design ranges from leather to chiffon, but the color scheme of white, red, black, and gray provides a uniform look.

Arena Stage
Smokey Joe's Café - The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
April 25th - June 8th
Words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
The Company: Jay Adriel, E. Faye Butler, Austin Colby, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Levi Kreis, Michael J. Mainwaring, Nova Y. Payton, Stephawn P. Stephens, Kara-Tameika Watkins
Directed by Randy Johnson
Choreographer: Parker Esse
Musical director: Rick Fox
Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine Avenues SW
Washington, DC Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org.


Photo: Teresa Wood


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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