Some area theaters play to these strengths, among them the Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables. With its slate favoring musical revues and musicals, there isn't all that much acting going on there, or, for that matter, many plays, but never mind. The playhouse may stick too closely to slap-happy, commercial programming, but the audiences keep coming back. And while some, me included, might argue for the importance of challenging an audience, it's hard to argue with success.
Producer Barbara Stein and artistic director David Arisco are among the canniest impresarios in the state. They know not only how to program a winning season and stage their shows with flair but also how to market the hell out of them. And the playhouse's level of corporate and government support only reinforces the cold, hard fact that producing theater takes more than vision; it takes persistence and basic commercial skills. There's a reason they don't call it "show art."
Which brings us around to the playhouse's latest offering, Smokey Joe's Café, yet another straight-from-New York musical revue that follows on the heels of 4 Guys Named José... and una Mujer Named Maria, the Latin-themed show that continues to play in the playhouse's upstairs theater space. Whereas the latter is a compendium of tunes from many songwriters, Smokey Joe's focuses on two, the amazingly prolific team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller are not, nor ever were, household names, but their songs sure were and still are immediately recognizable even today. Remember "Kansas City"? How about "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Spanish Harlem," "Love Potion #9," and "Jailhouse Rock"? All Leiber and Stoller. Beginning in 1950, when both were only 17 years old, this duo wrote dozens of hits for the biggest acts in the burgeoning pop-music business: Elvis Presley, the Drifters, the Coasters... the list is long.
The show is strictly a revue, with one song (and oftentimes a song and dance) seguing into another. There is some wisdom to this straight, no-chaser approach as it avoids dealing with a "book," a showbiz term for a musical's plotline that creates characters and some sort of dramatic throughline to link the songs. While 4 Guys suffers from a very weak book, Smokey Joe's steers clear of a plot altogether. And why not? The show is blessed with a superlative cast of performers who deliver one knockout number after another. There's not enough room here to list every kudo, but let it be said that the talent in this cast roster is so strong, I can envision any number of spin-off shows. Playhouse regular Reggie Whitehead, who delivers "Poison Ivy" and "Spanish Harlem" with equal finesse, is sheer energy on-stage, reminiscent in vocal style and energy of the late, great Jackie Wilson. Then there's Lainie Gulliksen's fiery rendition of the little-heard gem "I Keep Forgettin,'" which got me thinking that someone should write a Dusty Springfield revue for her. Kathleen Murphy Jackson's vocal range and versatility serves up a stunning, original take on "Hound Dog," the old Elvis hit -- it's like hearing the song for the first time.
These magic moments flare up frequently in Smokey Joe's, and that's the glass half full. The glass half empty is that they flame out too quickly. Once Juson Williams, another fireball of talent, gets wound up into the classic "On Broadway," the number's over. Same with Derrick Cobey's powerful "I (Who Have Nothing)." There are so many numbers in the show -- 37 songs and several reprises -- that none gets much stage time. Better to have cut some lesser tunes and expanded the great ones. But who to do this? No one is credited with having conceived or shaped this show, a decided mystery since, though there is no book, certainly someone chose which songs to use and in what order. Some numbers match up too well: "Yakety Yak" segues into "Charlie Brown," which tends to point out that, musically, they are almost identical.
David Arisco's production is serviceable but doesn't rise to the level of his performers. He and choreographer Barbara Flaten fall into the trap of overstaging the numbers that happen to have narrative elements. The result is a series of clever but largely irrelevant dance concepts that tend to obscure the songs and the singers in a flurry of choreography. Fortunately, the directors dispense with much of this strategy in the second half, allowing more focus on the music, the lyrics, and the performers.
The production is also hindered by some visual and aural elements. M.P. Amico's set, a series of concentric steel and stone arches that recalls the vaults in the New York City subway system, gives a gloomy, foreboding feel to the production, as do his sepia-tinted flats that slide in and out, more appropriate to Brecht than rock 'n' roll. There's also an uninspired six-piece backup band, placed upstage of the main action. While musical director David Nagy's crew is solid enough, it is also stolid, delivering all the verve and energy of a welding crew. Too bad Arisco didn't have a live and jumping on-stage band to add some juke and banter with the cast. And the choice to mic the cast with wireless headsets seems ill-advised, an ever-present distraction to the period look of the show.
Obviously, all of the above will be of particular interest to those who like their entertainment fast and light and fluffy. For those who require more thought, for all you ironists and post-structuralists, I offer another suggestion: "Smokey Joe's Café, the Inadvertent Critique on Race Relations in America." Here's a show that celebrates the careers of heytwo Jewish kids who wrote songs lifted from the African-American culture of the racially oppressive '50s and '60s. The music, performed largely by blacks, is consumed largely by whites blissfully in denial about their exploitation of black culture while simultaneously denying the people of that culture. The irony is magnified when considering that this largely black cast is knocking itself out for audiences from an overwhelmingly white Coral Gables crowd. One that probably wouldn't be caught dead in the kind of loose, open world that Smokey Joe's presents, let alone in the black community that exists, largely invisibly, only a few blocks away in the Grove.
And then there's the triple-axle irony of a black man singing "Treat Me Nice," a black R&B tune written for Elvis, the white man who made a fortune appropriating black music and dance innovations. The show also features a revisionist spectacle of blacks and whites (very blond whites, mind you) dancing and romancing and kidding around in a racial nirvana/neverland: the show sets up this faux nostalgia in "Neighborhood," a good-old-days conceit that's reprised throughout.
Nice tune, guys, but I doubt if that neighborhood ever existed back then, and pardon me if I'm wrong, but I don't see it around now either. At least on this stretch of sand. You gonna drink the rest of that wine?