Review: 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' at El Portal Theatre
In 1950, a couple of nice Jewish boys with a passion for black culture met up in Hollywood and changed popular music forever. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller not only found the sweet spot between smooth pop and raw blues, they were also among the first songwriters to produce their own songs. The duo's control over their material inspired everyone from Burt Bacharach to the Beatles: "We don't write songs," Leiber famously said. "We write records."
Now their wildly successful revue, "Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller," which ran for more than 2,000 performances on Broadway, plays in a terrific revival at the El Portal. The evening includes the team's biggest hits, including "Stand By Me," "Hound Dog," "On Broadway" and "Poison Ivy," and also features DeLee Lively, an alum from the Broadway production who defies physics with her knockout signature shimmy.
But even more fun is the chance to see director-choreographer Jeffrey Polk and his ensemble serve up the lesser-known songs, which showcase Leiber and Stoller's uncanny ability to drop into character and tell a story. In "Don Juan," Dionne Figgins slinks in with mile-long legs and a red feather boa to give a romantic pink slip to a tycoon with a shrinking portfolio. The song is decades old, but it's a perfect torch song for our current recession blues. In "Saved," a holy roller (Sharon Catherine Blanks, with a voice from here to next week) tries to free a layabout (Niles Rivers) from the grip of demon alcohol. Their vocal competition is an event in itself -- half tent revival, half Tin Pan Alley.
Polk keeps his cast moving at top speed, and dialogue-free "Cafe" covers 39 songs in just over two hours. The range of the songwriting astounds: These guys could knock off novelty songs ("Charlie Brown"), romantic ballads ("Spanish Harlem") and infectious melodies ("There Goes My Baby") without breaking a sweat. ("Hound Dog" was reportedly written in 12 minutes.) The show offers some sly juxtapositions: After the female members of the ensemble deliver a blistering take on that hymn to female multi-tasking, "I'm a Woman," the men savor the charms of "Little Egypt," a stripper who works magic with a pair of pasties.
The choreography ranges in quality -- the men scratch themselves silly during "Poison Ivy" but tear up the stage with an exhilarating step-dance for "On Broadway."
There's something inevitably impersonal about these live songbooks, with their lack of dialogue and slick transitions, and it's a tribute to Polk's assured direction and the nine-member ensemble's charm that they imbue the show with genuine personality. Figgins has diva power to burn, while Maceo Oliver's liquid moves are the standout in the men's dance numbers. Oddly, it's the songs associated with the King that fail to connect: "Jailhouse Rock" "Hound Dog" only remind you the Elvis has left the building.
Musical director Darryl Archibald keeps the band tight, while Brendan Grevatt's lighting design punctuates each number. Given its lack of narrative, "Joe" runs a tad long -- were Leiber and Stoller paid by the song? -- yet the energy never flags. For up-tempo, easy-to-digest holiday entertainment, "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is right on the money.
"Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller" El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan 4. $45-$55. (818) 508-4200. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Caption: From left, Niles Rivers, Robert Torti, John Woodard III, Maceo Oliver and T.C. Carson in "Smokey Joe's Cafe." Credit: Ed Krieger