On Stage: Musical Memories

REVIEW: Preserving rock n’ roll’s greatest hits with ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ at Arena.

'Smokey Joe's Café' at Arena Stage (Photo by Teresa Wood)

‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ at Arena Stage (Photo by Teresa Wood)

While it is true that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller didn’t invent rock n’ roll, it can be argued that they wrote the songs that made the 1950s such a memorable period for so many teenagers and gave any number of performers of their music the songs that made them rich and famous.

It was evident that many of those 1950s teenagers have come out for Arena Stage’s “Smokey Joe’s Café,” reliving all those misty memories for at least two hours of Leiber and Stoller hits that are such a familiar part of the American rock n’ roll songbook. It may be that many in the audience were remembering dancing to hit records of those songs in high school gyms, oblivious of the wafting locker room odors of chlorine and old sweat socks, reliving teenage love and angst.

Among the 39 songs in the show are such mega-hits as “Hound Dog,” “Treat Me Nice” and “Jailhouse Rock” made famous by Elvis Presley. Audiences will recognize other numbers such as “Young Blood,” “Kansas City,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Stand By Me,” “Love Potion #9,” and two of my favorites, “Spanish Harlem” and “On Broadway.”

Most importantly, “Smokey Joe’s Café” is just about the music. There is no patter between songs and there is no attempt to force the music to conform to some kind of story line. Nine energetic, talented singers sing the songs with respect to the way they were written. The seven-piece band, under ’s musical direction, is situated in the center of the Arena stage on a platform that rises and sinks, with the performers dancing and singing on all four sides. They move smoothly under ’s direction and ’s choreography in ways that members of the audience are likely to remember doing themselves in the 1950s.

But it takes someone as young and talented as these performers to move so effortlessly to make us think that it wasn’t all that difficult to dance that way.

It is worth pointing out that when “Smokey Joe’s Café” opened on Broadway in 1995 it became the longest-running musical revue, with more than 2,000 performances. Some of the stars who sang Leiber and Stoller songs that became smash hit records are legendary and include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Coasters, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Jimmy Hendrix, Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, and even Edith Piaf.

“Smokey Joe’s Café” is a delightful way to spend two hours of the best of rock n’ roll music ever written. It is both exhilarating and almost tearfully nostalgic of a time we like to remember as being perhaps more idyllic than it ever could be. It is hard, nonetheless, to hear a Leiber and Stoller song and not have warm, happy memories.

Smokey Joe’s Café” continues through June 8, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets are $50-$99 and available at 202-488-3300 and online here.

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