Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Smokey Joe's Café - The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
Also see Susan's review of Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog)
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 skillnot to mention his blue suede shoesin "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.