By Dale King
The names Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are not necessarily household monikers in today’s pop music or theatrical worlds. But switch over to an oldies station, or check out an AM radio channel’s Top 40 list from 50-plus years ago and you’ll find lots of Leiber and Stoller works – ballads, novelty tunes, R&B, pop, jazz, and, most notably, rock & roll.
Working in the cluttered offices of the Brill Building in Manhattan, the duo crafted more than 70 songs during a 60-year collaboration. Their bounty of exceptional work is being celebrated through mid-January in Smokey Joe’s Café, a musical revue at the Broward Stage Door Theatre in Margate.
The show features 39 Leiber and Stoller songs – most of them instantly recognizable hits, along with a few that aren’t quite as familiar, but are nonetheless fine examples of what the writing team could do with their talent and versatility.
“This is my third production of ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it,” said Kevin Black, director and choreographer. “I’m very fortunate to have found an incredibly talented cast that continues to impress me every day.”
The show includes such fine vocalists as Kat Gold – whose booming voice brought down the house a few months ago in Saturday Night Fever; Andre Russell and Charisse Shields, fresh from Stage Door’s exceptional production of Dreamgirls – along with Stephanie LoVerde, Austin Rivers, Michael Schneider, Aili Venho and Nethaneel Williams.
The cast melds voices with fine flair for ensemble tunes and stands out with grace and class for solos. With nary a visible seam, they make their moves backstage to change into colorful costumes, gowns and tuxes for the variety of songs spanning a gamut of genres and a bevy of performers.
Smokey Joe’s Café was conceived by Stephen Helper, Jack Viertel and Otis Sallid. The musical debuted in Los Angeles and moved to Broadway, racking up more than 2,000 performances from the mid-1990s to 2000.
Even the tune, “Smokey Joe’s Café,” was written by Leiber and Stoller, but is not performed in its entirety in the show. That song was a hit for The Robins in 1955, and was later covered by Buddy Holly. It shows up for just a few bars as a transition from “Teach Me How to Shimmy” to “Loving You.”
Don’t go to the show expecting a plot. One tune follows another with no particular rhyme or reason and no dialogue. There is one common thread – a lyric reprised several times telling of the songs that everyone played “when we were in the neighborhood.”
The music bounces around a lot. Everyone joins voices for “Stand by Me,” then lays down some floorshow smooth for Drifters songs such as “There Goes My Baby,” “Dance With Me” and “On Broadway.”
The Coasters get the full fun treatment by Williams and the Boys, doing “Poison Ivy” and Russell and the Boys performing “Young Blood.” Everyone’s on board for “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.”
Don’t forget that Leiber and Stoller wrote more than 20 songs for Elvis Presley. Gold gets the gold star for wailing “Hound Dog” – not the sanitized Elvis version, but the original 1953 rendition that was a hit for Big Mama Thornton.
As the show gets rolling, the singers really camp it up. Shields turns “Don Juan” into a skit about a woman who dumps her man because “he ain’t got no money.” The Boys sing and do some eye-popping looks for “Little Egypt,” a stripper with charms that only the audience can imagine.
The Girls get their time on stage, too, and use it well. They power-sing the feminist anthem, “I’m a Woman.” LoVerde is out front with “Falling” and Shields joins her for a bluesy take on “Trouble” that may as well be a bump-and-grind.
Lieber and Stoller wrote “I (Who have Nothing),” the Tom Jones torch song vocalized by Rivers. And if you check the notes, you’ll find that “Spanish Harlem” was actually written by Jerry Lieber and Phil Spector – and sung with fine accompanying dance steps by Williams and Shields.
On-stage performers get plenty of help from the backstage crew. Musical director Michael Friedman is an ace on the piano and keeps the melodies flowing. Costume designer Jerry Sturdefant has turned out some fine outfits, from tuxes and tails to short purple skirts paired with suspenders that sparkle in the stage lighting.
Smokey Joe’s Café runs through Jan. 14 at the Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 Sample Road, Margate. Tickets are $48. (Student prices are also available with valid ID). Tickets can be purchased by calling 954-344-7765 or going online to www.stagedoorfl.org.