Baby, That's Rock & Roll
Songwriting/record producing team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller didn't just mine the routines of obscure rhythm and blues artists, taking what was unique about the work—the passion, vibrant sexuality and emotional complexity—and whiten it up. They were fanboys of the highest order—in love with music that, for mostly ignorant, racist reasons, was limited only to small black clubs. Anxious for the music they adored to be heard by larger audiences, these two white boys from back East began writing hit records, using the soulful tunes as inspiration to make music that would propel black artists to stardom on a grander scale.
You can call that standing on the shoulders of giants, or you can call it wisdom, but there's something wonderful about their foresight—that by bringing great music and neglected artists to more people, they were able to change (white) people's narrow tastes, sell more records, and allow artists to grow and mature by keeping them going financially. With songs as diverse as "Stand by Me," "Yakety Yak," "Hound Dog," "Treat Me Nice" and "Jailhouse Rock" for artists as diverse as the Coasters, Ben E. King, Big Momma Thornton and Elvis Presley, Leiber and Stoller helped to kick-start what we now know as rock & roll.
This production of Smokey Joe's Caf revives the 1995 Broadway review of the duo's hits. The 42 songs the two men wrote together (or with others) are played over the course of two hours by a smokin' live band (ably led by musical director/conductor Grant Rohr) and sung and danced by a racially mixed cast. There's no story to speak of, and the lyrics for the most part are pretty negligible—just song after song about lost love, a betraying man or woman, or the standard doo-wop silliness of the '50s and early '60s—but there is such a variety in the genres (rock, jazz, blues or ballads) that if one song doesn't grab you, the next one will.
Given all this great material, it's an unhappy irony that, where Leiber and Stoller's music bridged the musical gap between black and white, this production suffers from a talent gap that breaks down along racial lines. The six African-Americans in the production (Lawrence Cummings, Eugene Barry Hill, Ron Kellum, Dominic Rambaran, Destiny Lofton and Nikkema Taylor)—along with the lone Asian, Sandra Allen—command the stage whenever they're on it. The men take the moody, potentially depressing "On Broadway" and turn it into something hopeful and sensual, while all three women—in both their solo and ensemble numbers (Taylor's lead in "Saved," especially)—are passionate, no-nonsense and fiery.
The same can't be said for their hapless white counterparts. Not only do they have difficulty singing above the band—despite being miked—but they also look either bored or distracted while waiting for their moment in the spotlight, or they overcompensate with a flurry of jazz hands and mugging to try to steal attention.
Director Sha Newman keeps things moving at a satisfying pace, but I found her choreography perfunctory. Granted, trying to do something different 42 times within a limited amount of playing space would test the mettle of any director, but there were far too many scenes that lacked any real energy. Designed to be just fancy enough to elicit applause but otherwise nothing special, that going-through-the-motions feel put a damper on the proceedings for me. The voluminous talent onstage deserved better.
Smokey Joe's Caf by the Fullerton Civic Light Opera at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman, Fullerton, (714) 879-1732; www.fclo.com. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through July 29. $25-$52.
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