Playhouse On the Square's production of Smokey Joe's Cafe is as well-crafted a piece of musical fluff as you're likely to see on a hot summer's night. It's also utterly doomed before the lights come up. This is not to say that there can't be fine performances of the highly acclaimed Leiber and Stoller musical revue. The POTS production is, as I mentioned, exceptional in almost every way, from its slick design to its energetic performances and its detailed choreography. And that's what makes the whole situation so terribly, terribly tragic that something so finely tuned and perfectly rendered can be so hopelessly out of touch with its own soul.
No matter how you look at it or attempt to justify it, the unavoidable fact is this: There's something wrong with people dressing up in nice Sunday clothes and sitting quietly in the dark, making a conscious effort not to unwrap their hard candy as a courtesy to the hard-working actors, appreciating songs like "Jailhouse Rock," "Poison Ivy," and "Love Potion #9." These are the songs that fomented a brand-new phenomenon in the 1950s the youth culture. These songs are joyous expressions of hormones raging out of control, and the minute you take them outside the context of a jukebox or a car radio, once you take them off the concert- or dance-hall stage and plop them down in the too-formal trappings of a musical revue, you destroy them. You make them as useless as a video of Elvis shot from the waist up. These raw, vital songs that heralded moral decay in the heartland, reckless adolescent promiscuity, and (gasp!) an unhealthy mingling of the races were summoned into existence for two reasons and two reasons only: to help pimply kids make out and to make their worried parents afraid to go to sleep at night. But put those same songs on stage in a theater and what have you got? Show tunes. Lots and lots of show tunes.
Another frustrating aspect of Smokey Joe's Cafe is its obstinate refusal to develop a narrative. The Leiber and Stoller story is an incredible one. Just consider this: Without them, there would have been no Phil Spector and no Wall Of Sound. Big Mama Thornton would have never recorded "Hound Dog." And that means Rufus Thomas would have never recorded his famous answer song "Bearcat," which paved the way for a little Memphis label called Sun and a pretty boy from the ghettos of Memphis named Elvis Presley. But Smokey Joe's gives you none of this. It's just one familiar song after another, rendered with the kind of virtuosity that makes people sigh and say, "Ah, remember when ... ." And that's just not what Leiber and Stoller were about. Even their sappiest ballads ("Neighborhood" being a major exception) have a vitality that keeps them rooted in an eternally youthful present. To "honor" and "remember" these songs is tantamount to killing them.
Bruce Bergner's exquisite scenic design, a sort of Disneyland take on an urban music club trapped in a dark, narcotic, and decidedly American night beneath the tiniest sliver of an orange moon, is indicative of everything that is wrong with Smokey Joe's Cafe. It looks like Beale Street as Beale Street looks today. Everything feels prefabricated and geared toward a very specific audience: aging boomers with more dollars than sense and an unhealthy compulsion to buy back the trappings of their misspent (if idyllic) youth. It has all the charm and authenticity of one of those rip-off prints of Hopper's Nighthawks. You know, the ones where James Dean is sitting with Marilyn Monroe beneath a red canopy of light-emitting diodes?
But what about the performers, you ask? What about them? In many cases, they are as close to being perfect as you could hope for. When Katie Deal lets loose with the country soul of "Pearl's A Singer," jaws unhinge. When Christina Ames, decked out in red fringe, shimmies like a cover girl for the latest installment of Las Vegas Grind, you can see why these songs started a musical craze that dominated half a century. When Tasha Gwin explodes with "Hound Dog," it's like watching Big Mama Thornton's ghost. And when Darius Wallace basses in on "Charlie Brown," you'll want to run out and buy every Coasters record you can get your hands on. But for a true lover of these songs trapped in a cramped theater seat and unable to physically respond to music that demands immediate physical response, even the finest numbers fall a little flat. And then, out comes Michael Detroit dressed like Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, singing the title track from the film. In spite of his huge talent, the balding, middle-aged Detroit, whose physical presence is more like that of Woody Allen than the King of Rock-and-Roll, just looks silly swiveling his hips and pretending to be menacing. It makes you long for a real juke joint reeking of pot smoke with a hot little combo in the corner and a couple dancing slow no matter what's being played. Hell, it makes you long for a six-pack and some headphones. n
Through September 15th.