Jerry Leiber grew up on the ‘edge of Baltimore’s black ghetto. Mike Stoller was raised in Queens, learning the ‘basics of blues and boogie woogie from African-American kids at summer camp’ (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum). The two meet in Los Angeles in 1950.
Their mutual love of boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues resulted in an immediate bond and they began writing. Both were 17 at the time. Liber was the lyricist, Stoller wrote the music (he took piano lessons from Fats Waller’s mentor).
In 1953 they formed their own label, Spark, which later became the Coasters. That same year, they released "Riot in Cell Block #9" and owned their own label because Atlantic Records later signed them to the industry's first independent production deal.
Not too bad for a couple of kids just getting their musical feet off the ground. Ultimately, they became one of the most influential songwriting teams in rock and roll history. (Smokey Joe’s Café official site)
For those of you who think you might never have heard of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller you might recognize some of their music: “Hound Dog". Oh, you thought Elvis write that one? Nope. “Stand By Me”, or “There Goes My Baby”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Fools Fall in Love”, “Yakety Yak”, "Poison Ivy", “Kansas City”, “On Broadway”, “Charlie Brown”, “Love Potion #9”, “Spanish Harlem”, (Leiber and Phil Spector) “Dance with Me”, “Buy Me A Ticket On The B&O” (been there done that) and I could go on and on. A composite of many of their popular and not so popular numbers; 37 in all, are showcased in “Smokey Joe’s Café.” Now showing at OnStage Theatre through April 9th.
It is a musical tribute to Leiber and Stoller, and has been on the musical theatre circuit now for years. It’s an enjoyable celebration of their works, and a pretty lively one at that. Since there is no book per se the music (and dancing) is non stop as the Tony Award winning (1995) show is held together solely by the music.
|(L To R) Reggie Hutchins, Raymond Stradford III, Emma Rose Tarr, Kyle Leatherbury, Dominque Dates, Alexander Salazar-Dunbar Shirley Johnston and Jake Strohl|
There are nine cast members, four guys and five gals all with strong voices and very distinct personalities. Three mesh curtains are suspended from the ceiling and are used for accents and background looks. The set is pretty simple giving the group room to easily move, dance and pair off. (Terri Brown and Chad Oakley)
The band is off to the side and when you want to catch sight of their musicianship, a look over will do, the sound speaks for itself. The cast is casually dressed in 50’s outfits (Pam Stomply-Ericson) and they begin the show with the number “Neighborhood”, a little ditty down memory lane for a look back at the old neighborhood.
From there the show takes off with each cast member pairing up with other cast members to go through the selection of songs, related or unrelated but certainly some that you can remember from your own growing up in the 50’ and 60’s days, or am I being presumptuous?
|Jake Strohl and Emma Rose Tarr|
Not to belabor a point, however, whether you are a product of the 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s you will recognize more of these songs than you think. Those were the days my friends when you could understand all the words and most of them had a special meaning: Love lost; love regained; love learned; foolish love and some just plain silly.
The revue is an entertaining diversion and OnStage pays it a lovely compliment with a capable cast including Dominique Dates, Reggie Hutchins, Shirley Johnston, Kyle Leatherbury, Belinda Pickens, Alexander Salazar-Dunbar, Raymond Stradfored III, Jake Strohl and Emma Rose Tarr.
Together and oft times solo they sing blues, rock‘n roll, jazz, rhythm and blues, pop and cabaret style. In other words, they do it all. The cast is a bit uneven with most of its strengths lying in the ensemble, with few standout solo numbers.
One that rocked the house “I Am Woman” with Belinda, Dominique, Emma Rose and Shirley. But when Emma Rose broke out with “Teach Me How To Shimmy” the guys were almost out of their chairs.
|Dominique, Emma Rose, Belinda and Shirley Johnston|
Two caught my attention: Reggie and Shirley’s “Spanish Harlem” (one of my all time favorites). Reggie’s rendition of the song is especially appealing and continues with a seductive dance number with Shirley Johnston who choreographed as well as directed adding to the piece. The other, Kyle Leatherbury’s “I Who Have Nothing” was definitely a showstopper.
Musical director Michelle Gray (A chip off the old block, she is Justin Gray’s daughter.) the show hummed along gathering momentum in the second act, when the stage has cabaret tables and chairs and the cast is paired off. Yes, they had us clapping and even swaying to the music.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the excellent musicians, all young folks but with a passion for playing: Sean Collins on Bass, Michelle Gray on Keyboards 1, Chans Valdez on Keyboards 2, Nikko Nobleza on Guitar, Raynald Marte on Drums, Alvin Paige on Sax.
Chloe Clark’s lighting took center stage on most numbers and Dania Cisneros and Julian Sink’s sound design was a bit muffled on some of the numbers, yet worked well on others.
By now all kinks will be worked out and Leiber and Stoller’s music will be a boon to all those claiming to know the words and the tunes of so many of their works, but not the composers. For yours truly it was a splendid trip down memory lane.
Dates: Through June 9th
Organization: OnStage Playhouse
Production Type: Musical Revue
Where: 291 Third Ave., Chula Vista, CA 91912
Ticket Prices: $25.00
Photo: Adriana Zuniga-Williams