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‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ Highlights Songwriting Team

July 10, 2008

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 10–For too many years, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller were the songwriting team that everyone loved and no one recognized.

They were the guys who wrote and composed 1950s and ’60s chart-toppers that included “Hound Dog,”"Love Potion No. 9″ and “Yakety Yak.”

But those songs became so closely tied to the famous artists who recorded them — including Elvis Presley, The Coasters, Aretha Franklin and The Rolling Stones — that Lieber and Stoller remained in the background.

That changed in 1995, when “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” opened on Broadway as a showcase for more than three dozen of the songwriting team’s pop standards. The show went on to become the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history.

On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera will celebrate the songs of Lieber and Stoller with its own production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

“The show was a catalyst for all the jukebox shows that followed,” says Craig Barna, who serves as the production’s musical director. “I’m really excited to be working on this show. It’s music I love, and these are standard tunes from the canon.”

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” makes no pretense of being a book musical, says Barry Ivan, who serves as director and choreographer.

“It’s one number after the next,” he explains. “There isn’t even any patter.”

Lacking a story to drive the musical forward provided Ivan with additional challenges when he first directed the show at Sacramento Music Circus in 2006.

It was only when he began thinking of it as a show about relationships that he found an anchor.

“You always have to remember, this music appealed to alienated teenagers,” he says. “It’s not unlike a Sondheim show. You don’t say, ‘I’m sad.’ It comes out of your behavior.”

Barna, who is working on “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” for the first time, offers a similar approach.

“It’s woven together to tell the stories of the relationships of the people,” he says. “Because all the material is character driven, you have to have people who are good actors.”

To achieve those ends, Barna and Ivan cast nine performers, all of whom have performed on Broadway or in national touring productions and some of whom have performed in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”

“You have to accept that everyone brings something to the table,” Barna says. “You have to be musically flexible and say, ‘How do we make it cohesive?’ I like that: forced collaborations.”

The result, Ivan says, should be a show that offers a lot of audience appeal.

“I think it provides a certain kind of escapism that will speak to these times,” Ivan says.

“This show is something that is different but not risky. It’s going to make people feel like it’s OK to spend money on gas and go out and be entertained.”

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