Smokey Memories

Arena Stage's Smokey Joe's Café is all song and dance, no story

Smokey Joe's Cafe Photo Teresa Wood

Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo: Teresa Wood

Why mess with success, right? Arena Stage touts in a press release that Smokey Joe’s Café, which debuted nearly two decades ago, became Broadway’s longest-running musical revue. Meanwhile, Randy Johnson, the director of Arena’s new production of the tribute to rock songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, asserts in the show’s program, “To me lyrics are simply great writing and great songs are three act plays in and of themselves.”

All well and true, and no doubt the lyrics and certainly great songs featured in Smokey Joe’s Café will be enough to satisfy many, maybe even most, theatergoers. We’re talking mid-20th century standards including — in order of appearance — “On Broadway,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Hound Dog,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me.” They’re especially entertaining as delivered by the stellar cast Johnson has assembled, led by gay singer-songwriter and Tony winner Levi Kreis. If you’ve ever been awed by local veterans E. Faye Butler, Nova Y. Payton and Stephawn P. Stephens, to name just three, you certainly will leave appreciative of the work they put in here. Same goes for the cute, amazingly expressive ways in which Arena’s veteran choreographer Parker Esse has the performers move around the central Fichlander Stage, with musical director Rick Fox and his seven-piece band always in sight, smack dab in the center.

Still, in a show that runs just over two hours, you might wish for some sense of plot — a story loosely tying together these nearly 40 songs beyond the simple fact of their creators. Even a little banter between the songs — maybe even interesting, little-known facts about the songs or the pop stars who originally performed them — would add zest. But Smokey Joe’s Café was created without a book writer, its sole focus to showcase the music and lyrics of Leiber and Stoller. It’s all song and dance, a nonstop hit parade. And whether that ultimately appeals to you just might be influenced by whether you’re of an age in which you actually remember when cafes were ever smoky.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe (starstar-1/2) runs to June 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $50 to $99. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.

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