Although even the most dedicated music fans may not immediately recognize the names of lyricist Jerry Leiber and his co-creating composer/partner Mike Stoller, as soon as you hear some of the pair’s most famous, iconic rock ‘n’ roll and R&B songs from the 1950s-1960s featured in Ferndale Rep’s musical revue, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” you’ll never forget them again!
First, let me introduce you to who they are, where they came from and when and how they got together to form what evolved into one of the most amazingly prolific and successful song-creating teams ever formed in the world of popular music.
Describing themselves as “two Jewish guys who dig the blues,” both were born in 1933. Leiber grew up in Baltimore near the edge of the city’s Black Ghetto neighborhood listening to, and influenced by, the area’s distinctively passionate music, while Stoller was raised in Queens, New York. And, although musically “classically trained,” his love for jazz and rhythm and blues was nurtured at the integrated summer camps he attended.
When the two (at the age of 17) individually decided to move to Los Angeles in 1950, their meeting there was sheer destiny. Both had been inspired by the raw power of the African-American artists they heard, and their unique approach to what they sang and played.
Deciding to collaborate together to write and record their own takes on what would soon “fuel” the birth of a ground-breaking style that became known as rock ‘n’ roll, what they achieved together during the following 60 years they created words and music is unmatched by any other writing team. They not only wrote hard-driving, funky songs with strong melody lines and edgy lyrics, but were also capable of surprisingly romantic ballads, as well as some with cutting-edge humor or insightful and heartfelt, soulful anthems.
Their material was written for and sung by top recording artists on Atlantic and RCA Records, selling millions and saturating the airways during two decades of that magical era. And now, so many years later, those memorable songs and singers live on and are still a beloved part of that musical history that’s never really gone away.
The partners were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and their Broadway musical revue (a format with no underlying theme and featuring 39 of their most popular songs) titled “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” was nominated for a Tony and also won a 1996 Grammy Award for best musical album.
The show itself became the longest-running Broadway revue ever. And, that show — with 34 of Leiber and Stoller’s best and most famous numbers — is what Ferndale audiences have the opportunity to enjoy, sung by an ensemble cast of some of the area’s most talented singers and accompanied by an equally skilled, rollicking band of live musicians. I saw them perform on opening night, and they not only raised the roof, they blew it off in that fictional, on-stage cafe!
So, here are the singers starring in the show, who individually and collectively have their moments to shine in the spotlight. They’re Carleigh Arnold, Jordan Dobbins, Tyler Egerer, Kiara Hudlin, Carl McGahan, Mathew Lewis, Sarah Traywick, Elizabeth Whittemore and Craig Woods. Outstanding, every one!
The omnipresent, on-stage band features David Belton Powell on keyboard (nailing it in his first gig in this capacity); Amber Grimes on bass; Alex Pickering on drums; Mike Craghead on guitar; and singer McGahan leaving his vocal performance now and again to play a mean saxophone. Their ongoing energy and expertise tackling every diverse song is great!
The recording artists who originally made the words and music of Leiber and Stoller world famous with their hit records (that the FRT cast will be performing) include Elvis Presley, The Drifters, The Coasters, Lavern Baker, The Monkees, Little Richard, The Clovers, Peggy Lee, Helen Reddy, James Brown and Ben E. King. Their unforgettable songs include “Ruby Baby,” “Dance With Me,” “Keep on Rollin,” “Searchin,” “Trouble,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “Poison Ivy,” “On Broadway,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Hound Dog,” “Little Egypt,” “ I’m a Woman,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Spanish Harlem,” “I (Who Have Nothing),” “Stand By Me,” and more. You’ll feel like dancing in the aisles and singing along before the show is through!
Directed by Jessie Rawson Gelormino (who also created the nifty choreography for the cast), Powell is the show’s musical director and the versatile McGahan is technical director. The moody scenic design is by Cecilia Beaton and the “period” costumes were designed by Cindy Shepard. The properties design is by Juli Abshire; lighting by Mark Zetler (run by Sydnee Stanton, Brad Harder, Kathy Harder and Dillon Tucker); and sound by Dillon Savage (run by Rebecca Albee). The show was produced by FRT Producing Artistic Director Leira V. Satlof.
Act 1 is a non-stop, line-up of songs approximately one hour long, followed by a 15-minute intermission. Act 2 will be approximately 45 minutes long. And remember, this musical revue format has no set storyline and dialogue for the singers, but moves along from song to song with just some “off-hand” remarks tossed between the performers now and then.
In other words, it’s all about Leiber’s wit and/or his beautiful lyrics, set to Stollers’ great, toe-tapping (or haunting) melodies. But no matter which of their songs you’re listening to, they all have an undeniable, touch of the blues, with a heart that shines through. That’s why you’re going to love what you hear at “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at FRT!
This must-see show continues its FRT run through April 7. Shows on Fridays and Saturdays have 8 p.m. curtains, with 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays.
Tickets are $18 general and $16 for students (15+) and seniors (65+). Purchase tickets at www.ferndalerep.org or call 707-786-5483. FYI, $2 will be added to help maintain the historic venue’s upkeep.
Tickets can also be purchased at the on-site box office 30 minutes before curtain. The theater is located at 447 Main St. in Ferndale.