“Smokey Joe’s” Revives Music That Bridged The Racial Divide

The songs are the characters, and a musical trip down memory lane offers a reminder of a time when those characters crossed a racial barrier in America.

That was the subtext as the good times unfolded on the stage of Long Wharf Theatre Wednesday night with “Stand by Me,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion #9,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Spanish Harlem,” and more than two dozen other legendary rock and roll tunes. They make up Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the first of the “jukebox musicals” that with over 2,000 performances in the 1990s was the longest-running musical revue on Broadway.

Long Wharf invited the Newark-based Irving Street Rep‘s touring company of the show to perform the revue that contains—count ‘em—34 songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

The show has glittery, sequined costumes as well as silly green wigs, nine bravura singers, a five-piece band, and loads of hand-clapping and audience participation. One of the singers doing “Don Juan” invited Leonard to shimmy. That’s how he ended up with a strand of her boa (pictured).

Click here for more about the show and the cast and a minute-long promo video produced by Long Wharf.

The show runs through July 28.

The show is comprised entirely of the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a songwriting team composed of two middle-class Jewish guys, one from Baltimore and the other from Long Island, who met in L.A. in 1950 and rapidly became “the first crossover” song writers.

While it’s not a big deal now, white guys writing music for black groups and with a lot of gospel feeling to it was a novelty and not without some controversy, said Farrow.

When the Songs Are The Characters

The production at Long Wharf is true to the Broadway original. While it’s a “revue” (not a “musical”) and has no through line of plot or character, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a kind of arc or musical journey, and more than one.

The first half has songs about “Searchin” and how “Fools Fall in Love” and get lost and then get “Saved” by the end of Act One. Or maybe.

As Act Two begins with “Baby That Is Rock and Roll,” “Yakety Yak,” and “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” you just know joy, redemption, and dancing are on the way.

“It’s a musical review of music,” said Farrow, with each song telling its own story.

The larger story is how Leiber and Stoller evolved.  They began with safe innocent boy-girl tunes: “People just expected them to just do boy-meets-girl music.” They moved on to relationships with songs like “Hound Dog.” “Then they crossed over,” writing music for black groups like the Drifters and the Coasters, Farrow said.

In an interview after Monday’s performance, Farrow expressed continuing amazement how a couple of white men could write music that rang true not only in the voices of black performers, but for women also.

He expressed amazement, for example, at how they come up with the 1962 song “I’m a Woman”, which Peggy Lee and Bette Midler made famous.

When the show’s not a musical with a story but a revue with only songs, the individual songs function as the characters, Farrow said. To make each work, his singers strive to give texture to each song, dipping into their own experience, touching as many musical bases as possible not only the home plate of nostalgia. They must also do this at a high energy and professional, Broadway level, he said.

Farrow said he was pleased with the debut performance, almost a kind of dress rehearsal, which finished at 5, with another show scheduled for 8 p.m.

The singing is uniformly impressive, with some voices like Ron Lucas’s reminiscent of a crooner like Billy Eckstein and others like Dawn Marie Driver effortlessly channeling Aretha Franklin.

Famecia Ward, she who dangled the red boa in front of Bill Leonard, has a throaty, vampy voice and and provided some of the best acting. She interacted with several Bills, including sitting on a lap or two.

The male singers also did some turns around Smokey Joe’s, with several courageous women members of the audience who showed that despite the grey hair they had not forgotten how to do the shimmy, mashed potato, and the twist.

Farrow said he hopes the arc of the show for the audience will take them back to individual memory lanes. “I want people to leave saying, ‘Do you remember ...?” Even younger kids who did not slow dance to the Drifters know this music, having heard it on American Idol and other such programs, Farrow added.

The show was certainly memory lane and more for Leonard and the Vogt Family. As the lights went down for the second act, Leonard fixed the boa feathers on his shirt like a boutonniere and said, “I’m gonna flaunt this. Maybe she’ll come back.”

She did.

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