Fans of 1950s rock and pop will be in Top 40 heaven with the El Portal Theatre’s revival of the 1995 Broadway smash Smokey Joe’s Café, featuring three dozen of the greatest hits of rock-and-roll songwriting legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Directed with savvy and choreographed with pizzazz by Jeffrey Polk, a veteran of numerous Smokey Joes, the current production stars Tony-nominated DeLee Lively of the original Broadway cast, performing opposite husband (and Tony nominee) Robert Torti and seven of the finest performers L.A. has to offer—Sharon Catherine Blanks, T.C. Carson, Dionne Figgens, Maceo Oliver, Niles Rivers, Jackie Seiden, and John Woodard, III.

Even those unfamiliar with the names Leiber and Stoller have doubtless heard some of their biggest hits more than once—“Kansas City,” “Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “On Broadway”…  The list goes on and on.  Elvis Presley rocketed to stardom with their “Hound Dog” and later made the “Jailhouse Rock” to Leiber and Stoller’s words and music.  Peggy Lee told the world “I’m A Woman” (W-O-M-A-N) and asked the musical question “Is That All There Is?” And in my several decades of teaching English to foreign students, there’s hardly been a one who couldn’t sing at least a few bars of “Stand By Me.”

This musical revue divides the Leiber and Stoller hits among its nine terrific cast members.

Top-billed Lively and Dance Theatre Of Harlem vet Figgens sizzle in the seductive “Trouble,” the pair clad in matching black swimsuits and heels.  Lively duets with husband Torti a high-energy “Teach Me How To Shimmy,” featuring the blonde bombshell in an extended shimmy (and I do mean extended) that likely cinched her Tony nomination.  Torti gives Elvis a run for his money with “Jailhouse Rock,” while Figgens solos to a tango beat with “Don Juan.”

The stunning Figgens later shows off balletic grace in “Spanish Harlem,” sung with romantic passion by Oliver, a 6’4” leading man just waiting for the right role to catapult to stardom.  Oliver duets “Dance With Me” to a doo-wop beat with a power-voiced Blanks, who later belts out a rock-n-rollin’ “Fools Fall In Love” (featured in the recent Elvis musical All Shook Up) and returns in Act 2 with the same song in ballad form, holding notes longer than would seem to be humanly possible.

T.C. Carson, best known for his starring role in the hit 90s sitcom Living Single, proves himself a stellar vocalist with “There Goes My Baby” and “Love Potion # 9,” and Niles Rivers brings the house down with the Ben E. King’s classic “I Who Have Nothing.” Woodard displays his deeper-than-deep silky bass voice in “You’re The Boss,” dueting with Figgens. The gorgeous Seiden, the breakout performer in El Portal’s recent Respect: The Girl Em-powered Musical, continues her fast track to stardom with a sassy “I Keep Forgetting” and a country-flavored “Pearl’s A Singer.”

The male quartet of Carson, Oliver, Rivers, and Woodard recreate the sound of The Coasters, who had twenty-four Leiber and Stoller chart hits, in “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” and “Poison Ivy” while the ladies combine voices in a nostalgic “Neighborhood.”  There’s a cleverly conceived and choreographed “Shoppin’ For Clothes,” featuring Rivers backed by three dancing, headless store mannequins. The evening of musical memories concludes with Carson leading the company in “Stand By Me,” whose closing notes are met with a deserved audience standing ovation.

Musical director extraordinaire Darryl Archibald plays a mean piano and conducts the seven-piece band to perfection. Lighting (by Brendan Grevatt) and costumes (by Maurilia Mendez) are equally high caliber.

While other theaters are offering holiday carols in concert, Smokey Joe’s Café provides the perfect answer to those in search of non-Christmassy musical entertainment. Its sensational stars keep the El Portal rockin’ and rollin’ throughout December, with a pair of gala New Year’s Eve performances scheduled for the 31st.  I can’t think of a better way to bring in 2009.

El Portal Theatre Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 13, 2008
Photos: Ed Krieger

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