Smokey Joe's Café dazzles in Center REP production

Pat Craig
Contra Costa Times
September 7, 2011

"I knew all about Leiber and Stoller. They were those bad white boys who wrote the blackest songs this side of the Mississippi. I loved what they did." -- Ray Charles

"Smokey Joe's Cafe," the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller musical, is not without its bittersweet side. Leiber died less than two weeks before the high-octane, muscular and superhero-energetic musical opened at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center.

If you aren't familiar with the songwriting duo, whose success was solidified in the early '50s when Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton recorded their tune "Hound Dog" (a couple of years before Elvis Presley launched himself on America with the same song), just see the first few minutes of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and you will conclude, as many have, that Leiber and Stoller could have been the inventors of rock 'n' roll.

Few, if any, songwriters have been recorded by such a diverse group of performers -- black and white, young and old, male and female. Their recorded tunes range from "Yakety Yak" and "Fools Fall in Love" to "Stand by Me" and "Is That All There Is?"

What they wrote were not just songs, but two-minute movies that offered tales of everything from a humorous look at the pitfalls of credit in "Shoppin' for Clothes" to a lament for lost love in "There Goes My Baby," to a picture of a revival meeting in "Saved," to a yearning for fame despite all odds in "On Broadway." Leiber (words) and Stoller (melodies) were the street-corner Gershwin brothers, who looked at life from the standpoint of neighborhoods we all grew up in, for better or worse.

And now Center REPertory Company is doing those songs justice.

The company's nine-member cast -- five men and four women -- is an astounding, high-energy ensemble of singers and dancers with a nice bit of acting talent. Four of the guys -- Rondrell McCormick, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd and Dave J. Abrams -- get to play a lot of the comedy bits. With the occasional help from Noel Anthony, they cover the songs of the Clovers and the Coasters in "Poison Ivy," "Searchin' " and several others.

Not surprising, many tunes made popular by Presley are part of "Smokey Joe's," but what makes them exciting to hear is the different spin they get in the performances. Boyd sings a very demanding "Treat Me Nice" to Constance Jewell Lopez, who turns around with "Hound Dog," sung with appropriate venom. Lopez also does a delightful "Fools Fall in Love."

The four women in the cast, Eva Rebane, Taylor Jones, Brittany Danielle and Lopez, team for a terrific job on "I'm a Woman." Rebane does an excellent "I Keep Forgettin'," while Danielle creates an outstanding "Falling," then teams with Jones on a sly version of "Trouble." Then Jones presents a droll version of "Some Cats Know," while clad in a costume of suds and bubbles.

Musical director Sean Kana plays piano and directs a hot five-piece band that helps move the intense pace set for the musical by director Robert Barry Fleming, who also created the clever choreography. Costumes were beautifully designed for the '50s period by Victoria Livingston-Hall.

Kelly James Tighe created an evocative, multilevel cityscape of a set, and helped decorate it with prop master Joshua Lipps.

A Musical Masterpiece in Walnut Creek

Charles Jarrett
Rossmoor News
September 7, 2011

If you have special fondness for songs of the 1960s and 1970s, especially the music of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller who penned such great hits as those recorded by Elvis Presley with “Loving You,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog” and the Drifters most popular, “There Goes My Baby,” then you will be in rock and roll heaven if you see the incredible Center REPertory Company production of Smokey Joe's Café playing at the Lesher Center for the Arts through Oct. 9.

Director Robert Barry Fleming has brought this outstanding musical to a new high. I have never seen this musical produced and directed on an energy level that would be comparable to a show on the Great White Way in New York. This one is just plain “super wow!” from beginning to end. Everything about this show is first class, first cabin, Rolls Royce, in absolutely every respect.

I have to start with the super multifaceted, multileveled set designed by master set builder, Kelly James Tighe. Pinpoint lighting by Paul Miller and the period-perfect costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall. The superlative cast of first-rate entertainers consists of Dave J. Abrams, Noel Anthony, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd, Brittany Danielle, Taylor Jones, Constance Jewell Lopez, Rondrell McCormick, Eva Rebane and Anthony Rollins-Mullens.

Musical Director Sean Kana brings an echo of a fondly remembered past with a delightful five-piece band that was definitely up to the task. The great sounds of songs such as “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak,” “Fools Fall in Love” and the super hit, “Kansas City” are still haunting my rock-and-roll reverie, bringing back the beat and bounce to my fondly remembered musical past. These are the songs I dated to, danced to and romanced to - the great stuff of yesteryear.

Superb Menu at Smokey Joe's Café

Kedar K. Adour
September 7, 2011

Once again Center REP has come up with a standing ovation production. This time around it is Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller jumpin’ and jivin’, shimmyin’ and shakein’ on their main stage. Even before the action begins you get to admire and gawk at Kelly James Tighe’s inventive set constructed of three levels of metal pillars and platforms adorned with neon lights and props suggestive of a 1950s neighborhood.

And how perfect to start the show as the five piece onstage band under the energetic direction of Sean Kana leading the ensemble cast in “Neighborhood.” The show is a paean to the rock-n-roll era created by songwriters Mike Stoller and the late Jerry Leiber (This show is dedicated to Leiber). It is a musical revue without plot or named characters with continuous singing and dancing hardly giving the audience a chance to catch their breath before the next number begins. Speaking of catching their breath, the cast sings with gusto and marvelous interpretation as they perform 39 rock-n-roll pop standards and a huge dollop of rhythm and blues songs. The ever inventive director, Robert Barry Fleming, also is the choreographer and puts the cast through finger snapping, hand clapping routines that are eye popping.

Speaking of eye popping, although it may be unfair to single out individuals, Taylor Jones dressed in a body fitting gold sequined mini skirted dress is a knockout as her graceful ( cross out “graceful” and substitute seductive) body movements spotlighted on the second level platform for “Don Juan” is a knockout. All the actors have their brilliant turn upon the stage. Collectively Dave J. Abrams, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd, Rondrell McCormick and Anthony Rollins-Mullens add fire to Fleming’s choreographic demands. They may be demanding but they seem as fresh from their opening number “Young Blood” to the act two “Little Egypt”, “There Goes My Baby” and “Love Potion #9.”

The women not only hold their own with the men but have their own show stoppers. One of my favorites is the ensemble number by Brittany Danielle (yes that Brittany who gave an award winning performance with Becoming Britney last year at Off Center stage) Constance Jewell Lopez, Eva Rebane and Taylor Jones were dynamite in “I’m a Woman.” When it is full bodied Constance Jewell Lopez’s turn she belts a song with a guttural tremolo that brings the rafters down with “Fools Fall in Love”, “Hound Dog” and the gospel “Saved.” Eva Rebane shines with “Pearl’s a Singer” and with Rondrell in”Love Me/Don’t.”

Local favorite Noel Anthony gets his turn and does a fine job with Brittany in “Teach me to Shimmy” and with the company in “Jail House Rock.” Anthony Rollins-Mullens adds much of the humor with his basso interjections and as the dunce-capped “Charlie Brown and with Taylor Jones “You’re the Boss.” If you have never seen 6-pack abs, you will when you see bare-chested Dave J. Abrams sing the lovely ballad “Spanish Harlem” to Taylor Jones.

Before I forget, three cheers of Victoria Livingston-Hall’s costume design. In the second act the males look spiffy and show a real touch of class in white dinner jackets, black outfits with red ties. The women’s clothing are too numerous to mention ranging from, sexy to gorgeous and mundane when they should be.

There are many, many accolades that need mentioning but be advised to get your tickets early to find out what they are. This show is sure to be a sell out. Sadly it only lasts less than two hours with intermission.

Smokey Joe's Sizzles at all Tempos

Sally Hogarty
September 15, 2011

For a smoking hot time, don't miss Center Rep's "Smokey Joe's Café" through Oct. 9 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

The tribute to songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is an energetic romp through the '50s and '60s when the prolific duo penned such crossover hits as "Hound Dog" and "Kansas City." Whether writing for The Coasters, The Drifters or the King himself, Leiber and Stoller more than earned their place in both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with such hits as "Jailhouse Rock," "There Goes My Baby," "Fools Fall in Love," "Poison Ivy" and "I'm a Woman."

Center Rep director/choreographer Robert Barry Fleming and musical director Sean Kana take Leiber and Stoller's great music, embrace the writers' elaborate production values and add their own special brand of humor and creative choreography for a finger-snapping, toe-tapping, sexy evening of fun. Freely borrowing from ballet, jazz, tap, hand-jive, ballroom and other realms, Fleming creates an athletic, often unusual choreography that sometimes takes you by surprise but always pleases. Fortunately, he had an incredible ensemble of highly talented singers and dancers who turn Kelly Tighe's elaborate multilevel steel set into their own personal jungle gym.

Fleming does a nice job alternating hard-hitting dance numbers with soulful ballads, creating a series of mini-plays with his nine-person cast. While Act Two contains several songs from Act One, you would hardly know it as Fleming shows the versatility of the music and the range of his prodigiously talented cast. A humorous streak flows throughout the two-hour show, adding another wonderful level of entertainment. But none of this would be possible without performers capable of pulling it off, and Fleming has found a bevy of accomplished performers to do just that.

Great harmonies and dance routines abound with each performer given plenty of chances to shine. Dave Abrams is at his sensual best in "Spanish Harlem," while Noel Anthony shines in "Ruby Baby." Brittany Danielle shows off her dancing skills in "Teach Me How to Shimmy" with Taylor Jones giving a whole new meaning to "Some Cats Know," sung while indulging in a bubble bath. Constance Lopez brings the audience to its feet and Act One to a rousing end with the gospel rendition "Saved." It doesn't get much better than Rondrell McCormick's sultry tones in "Love Potion No. 9" and Anthony Rollins-Mullens lower-than-low bass tones are a welcome addition to every song.

A surprise to me was tall, blond Eva Rebane, who has a powerful voice that can sing sad torch songs and then belt out a more up-tempo piece showing her wide vocal range. Another sweet surprise was Isaiah Boyd. The young performer cajoled the audience with many humorous songs and strong dance moves but brought down the house with his knockout, heartbreaking rendition of "I Who Have Nothing."

Musical director Sean Kana (on piano and vocals) leads the rockin' five-piece band, which consists of Marcus Barron (guitar), Ken Bergmann (drums), Larry De La Cruz (saxophone) and Danny Min (bass). If getting back into the school-year routine is getting you down, get rejuvenated at Smokey Joe's Café. Call 925-943-SHOW or go to www.lesherartscenter.org.

Smokey Joe's proves rock & roll is here to stay

Larry Rosenberg
Piedmont Post
September 14, 2011

Imagine dusting off your favorite 45's, stacking them one on top of each other on your ancient record player, and, while you listen to them, live singers and dancers perform the songs. Look out, here comes Smokey Joe.

For all you "oldies but goodies" devotees, the Center REPertory Company of Walnut Creek is now performing Smokey Joe's Cafe, a musical review of the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, music that defines the 50's and 60's rock and roll early rhythm and blues era.

Smokey Joe's Cafe opened on Broadway in 1995, winning five Tony Awards, plus a Grammy as best Musical Show Album.

It's a show with something for everyone, as evidenced by a multi-generational audience on opening night. The audience gets into the show, at times clapping and singing along with songs while spontaneously giving the cast standing ovations.

Hold onto your calculator: the show has 39 - count 'em - of Lieber and Stoller hits, including "Spanish Harlem," "Charlie Brown," "Little Egypt" (with a ruby in her tummy), "Stand by Me," "Yakety Yak," "Love Potion #9," "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" (which rocketed Elvis to fame), "There Goes My Baby," "I Am Woman (W-O-M-A-N)," and on and on.

Whew, It's a lot of music, but no one complained about the number of musical pieces on opening night. They were too happy with the results.

Director and Choreographer Robert Barry Fleming assembled nine delightful performers for this review, five men and four women who sing, dance, act and ham it up. Four cast members - Rondrell McCormick, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd and Dave J. Abrams - make up a 60's doowop singing group with harmony and moves straight our ot Motown. Constance Jewell Lopez is a scene stealer in a gospel version of "Saved," which brought down the house, and Brittany Danielle does an eye-popping dance in "Teach Me How to Shimmy."

A marvelous five piece band led by Sean Kana is on stage, scenic designer Kelly James Tighe gives the stage an impressive Manhattan urban flavor, while the costumes of Victoria Livingston-Hall add authenticity to the production.

Smokey Joe's Cafe is the cafe you want ot visit - no corree, but plenty of joyous entertainment. It plays through October 9, at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.