“Kansas City,” “Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “On Broadway” are just four of the 1950s rock and pop hits now being performed to cheers and not one but two standing ovations as the Pasadena Playhouse revives the 1995 Broadway smash Smokey Joe’s Café, featuring forty of the greatest hits of rock-and-roll songwriting legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Even those unfamiliar with the names Leiber and Stoller have doubtless heard some of their biggest hits more than once. 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 convinced us she meant it. And is there anyone on this planet who can’t sing at least a few bars of “Stand By Me”?
Directed with Vegas pizzazz and choreographed with abundant imagination and panache by Smokey Joe’s vet Jeffrey Polk, this brand-new Playhouse production features an all-around stellar cast of L.A.-based triple-threats: LaVance Colley, Kyra Little Da Costa, dance captain Thomas Hobson, Stu James, Adrianna Rose Lyons, Monique L. Midgette, Robert Neary, Michael A. Shepperd, and Carly Thomas Smith.
Lyons duets with Neary a high-energy “Teach Me How To Shimmy,” featuring the redheaded bombshell in an extended shimmy (and I do mean extended), the leggy duo of Da Costa and Lyons sizzle in the seductive “Trouble,” Neary gives Elvis a run for his money with a rockin’-and-rollin’ “Jailhouse Rock,” and Da Costa solos “Don Juan” to a tango beat (and the longest red feather boa in Pasadena Playhouse history).
The stunning Da Costa later shows off balletic grace en pointe in “Spanish Harlem,” duetted with romantic passion by song-and-dance partner Hobson. Hobson duets “Dance With Me” to a doo-wop beat with a power-piped Midgette, who later belts out a sensational “Fools Fall In Love.”
James proves himself one smashing vocalist with “There Goes My Baby” and “Love Potion # 9,” and Colley earns his very own standing ovation with the Ben E. King’s classic “I Who Have Nothing.” The towering Shepperd displays a deeper-than-deep silky bass voice in “You’re The Boss,” which he duets with Da Costa. The gorgeous blonde Smith sells a sassy “I Keep Forgetting” and a country-flavored “Pearl’s A Singer.”
The male quartet of James, Hobson, Colley, and Shepperd recreate the sound of The Coasters, who had twenty-four Leiber and Stoller chart hits, in “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” and “Poison Ivy” while Da Costa, Lyons, Midgette, and Smith combine voices in a nostalgic “Neighborhood.” There’s a cleverly conceived and choreographed “Shoppin’ For Clothes,” featuring Colley backed by three dancing, headless store mannequins. The evening of musical memories concludes with James leading the company in “Stand By Me,” whose closing notes are met with a deserved second audience standing ovation.
Musical director Abdul Hamid Royal conducts the Vegas-ready onstage seven-piece band—Vanessa Brown, Fred Clark, Jervonny Collier, Sal Lozano, Mike Shapiro, John Gentry Tennyson, and Royal himself on keyboard 1—to perfection.
As for the Smokey Joe’s Café design package, the Pasadena Playhouse could wrap the whole shebang up and send it straight to Broadway, it’s that spectacular. Scenic designer Gary Wissman captures the feel of downtown USA in a gorgeous, abstract set that allows our imaginations to fill in the rest. Lighting whiz Steven Young tops himself with a dazzling display of multicolored electric pyrotechnics.
Sharell Martin’s costumes are as gorgeous and imaginative as I’ve seen from the master designer, who tailors each one to the song being sung and the artist performing it. Jon Gottleib and Philip G. Allen have created a sound design that lets us hear every voice and instrument to crystal clear perfection.
Joe Witt is general manager/production manager, Brad Enlow technical director, Kristen Hammack company manager, Jill Gold production stage manager, and Phil Gold stage manager. Casting, impeccable as always, is by Michael Donovan, CSA.
With Twelve Angry Men following these Nine Tremendous Triple-threats in November, the Pasadena Playhouse begins what is certain to be at the very least an eclectic 2013-2014 season. If this season opener is any indication, it’s going to be a sensational one as well.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
September 22, 2013
Photos: Kevin Berne