THE SONGS OF LEIBER AND STOLLER DELIVER CLASSIC ICONIC SONGS AND ENTERTAINMENT WITH A TALENTED ROCKING CAST
SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE is now open at Tri Valley Rep Firehouse Theatre, celebrating the superb songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Ten astonishing performers bring the songs to life. The songs are now hopping and spinning only through May 12th at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in downtown Pleasanton. The two songwriters songbook of close to 40 pop standards are highlighted – rock and roll, rhythm-and-blues classics by the foolproof hit-making team of the 1950s and ’60’s. Leiber and composer Stoller created all classics; SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE is a mix of the great scores of the 20th century.
The Tony Award-nominee and Grammy Award-winner show which opened in New York in 1995 became the longest running musical revue in Broadway history. The crowds kept the Cafe open from 1995, running for five years or 2,036 performances. A song and dance musical set in the 1950’s, SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE carries the themes of love, life and togetherness.
Lieber and Stoller may not be a household names, especially among fans of musical theatre, but their impact on American popular music is more than worthy of its own celebratory revue. Produced by the accomplished Kathleen Breedveld, she brings this show to Tri Valley’s more intimate venue The Firehouse Arts Center where every seat seems front row. Directed and choreographed by the skillful Christina Lazo, she cast all triple threat actors who can sing, act, dance and bring each of these classic numbers to life.
The songs range from ballads "I Keep Forgetting” or “I Who Have Nothing", to rock classics "Hound Dog", to gospel "Saved", to easy listening anthems”Hound Dog”, "Stand by Me" and the fun “Jailhouse Rock”. The powerful company of ten performers including; Dave J Abrams, Dominic Lessa, Justin Sabino, The T, Chris Poston, Tanika Baptiste, Elizabeth Curtis, Vida Mae Fernandez, Katherine Dela Cruz, and swing Courtney Jacobs who all blast out almost 40 songs. Each actor has a solo throughout the two hour two act show. They are all flat out superb singers and dancers. As solo individuals each performer brings something special and distinctive to the Cafe.
Director Lazo keeps the cast moving. Music Director, the superb Sierra Dee, kept the pop tunes “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog” in the rock and roll perfection. The ten singers all have keen voices and fill the Firehouse Theatre and beyond. The songs serve as the soundtrack to the lives of an entire generation. While most musicals create memories, SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE taps existing ones and, by doing so, forms an immediate and intimate connection with the baby boomers and Gen X audience, millennial's and now the Generation Z. The sold out afternoon crowd at the Firehouse theatre couldn’t help but be swept away with the energy dance and music.
Superb Music director, Dee is perched on a rolling piano that the cast moves downstage as Dee brings the passion out of the songs and sings with the cast in “Stay a While”. The on stage band includes the lively Eugene Theriault (bass), Chris Kuo (guitar) Ray Friedman (drums), and Jorge Hernandez (saxophone) they are all featured as the second act opens in “Baby That is Rock and Roll”. Each band member has a solo and Dee sings with the cast as her piano rolls down stage. Bo Golden’s set design keeps the the band on stage in Joe’s Cafe and rafters and rails and rafters for the cast to enter. It was nice to see the band with the company as the two hour show flew by.
Each cast member has one or two featured numbers including the gifted Justin Sabino who sings “Love Me/Don’t” and the classic “Stand By Me” and others. The magistic Elizabeth Curtis has a powerhouse voice for “Pearl’s a Singer” and “I Keep Forgetting”.
The sizzling Vida Mae Fernandez and Katherine Dela Cruz share some amazing swagger in “Don Juan”, “I am a Women” and “Trouble”. Both women told me “We have some strong females in this cast, we are all giving our all, we have something unique about us and we give 100%.”
The impeccable Tinika Baptiste says “Smokey Joe’s Café is a nonstop party, - I hope attendees leave feeling inspired to connect and check in with their loved ones, friends and community. Together we are strong. We each bring something wonderful, magical and divine to the table.” Baptiste brings the house down with her many solo’s including “Dance with Me”, “Fools Fall In Love” and “Treat me Nice”.
The high spirited David J Abrams is full throttle in the classic “Poison Ivy”, “Young Love” and “Spanish Harlem. Big bass Chris Poston the senior member of the cast used his low big voice in “Yakety Yak”, and “Charlie Brown”. Dominic Lessa says “For some, it will be a walk down memory lane. For others, it's a look through a keyhole to the past.” Lessa is exceptional and sings “Teach Me How to Shimmy”, and the Elvis hit “Jailhouse Rock”.
The craft team is all creative including Erica Engle’s lighting for “For I Am A Woman” and “There Goes My Baby”. The set highlights include the rafters that take the players above the band and adds the open space to the city effect of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”. Karl Haller’s sound design incorporates each actor original sound. Stage Manager Brian Olkowski moves the cast on an off the busy stage, with the main issue getting his cast in and out of their many costumes with the help of Jess Hutchins, Jennie Jennings, Joan Brown, Ronna Lagin, and Mary Kay Stevenson.
Each number called for different looks and the costume team includes Lisa Danz, Jane Yuen Corich and Kathleen Breedveld as the guys went from Black Tie to Jailhouse Rock black and white. The costumes included stylish loafers and sweaters for the men and skirts for the women. Colorful scarves and heels, I was most charmed by the formal wear for the men in the second act. Lexie Lazear created the wigs and make up for the company and brings that swagger to the Cafe.
The standard jukebox musicals explore the life and times of the actual folks who created their songs, the way "Jersey Boys" tells the story of the The Four Seasons and how "Beautiful" is all about Carol King. In "Smokey Joe's Café," Leiber and Stoller are not mentioned in the production, and many didn’t know they authored these songs, and never performed their own music. But the shear bond the cast has with the music and songs brings each one a story to tell on stage.
Many standout highlights of the ten performers include the confident ‘The T” who belted out all his songs including the hits “Treat Me Nice” and “I Who Have Nothing”. The players gel as a collective group, performing Lazo’s creative dance/song-specific period-appropriate choreography with precision and energy, and selling each musical number as if their lives depended on it.
These songs are not just a time capsule, their lyrics and message resonate today more than ever. Stories of lost love, female empowerment and changing neighborhoods are still relevant. At shows end of course the audience was up on their feet dancing and singing with the cast. Get to the Cafe soon, this is a sell out but some seats still remain. Next up at Tri Valley Rep is THE FANTASTICKS that opens this fall November 2nd. DAMN YANKEES opens next spring in 2020. But in the meantime let this musical win you over and enjoy the concert like rock and roll of the hand-clapping foot stomping 39 hit songs.
Tri Valley Rep Theatre Presents
SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE
The Songs of Leiber and Stroller
Words and Music by
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Produced by Kathleen Breedveld
Directed and Choreographed
by Christina Lazo
Musical Direction by Sierra Dee
Closes May 12th
PERFORMED AT THE FIREHOUSE ARTS THEATER
4444 Railroad Avenue
Running Time 2 hours with an intermission
For tickets - visit the Firehouse Arts box office at 4444 Railroad Avenue, or call 925-931-4848, Wednesday-Friday, noon to 6pm, Saturday, 10-4pm or visit online: http://www.firehousearts.org/.
*Some Cast interviews courtesy of THE INDEPENDENT By Carol Graham
PHOTOS BY Bob Bronzan and DC Scarpelli
CAST Dave J Abrams, Dominic Lessa, Justin Sabino
The T, Chris Poston, Tanika Baptiste, Elizabeth Curtis
Vida Mae Fernandez, Katherine Dela Cruz, and Courtney Jacobs
NICO JAOCHICO FROM VMEDIA ARTS INTERVIEWS THE CAST