July 13, 2008

Smokey Joe’s in the Once-Smokey City

By Patti Conley, Beaver County Times, Pa.

Jul. 13--PITTSBURGH -- The neon lights will be bright at the Benedum Center on Tuesday.

There'll be magic in the air when the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" rocks this once smoky city with the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Whose songs?

Leiber's the lyricist. Stoller's writes the music. Together in the '50s and the '60s, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers authored tunes that millions can name in just three notes.

You've been to that party that the warden threw at the county jail. Elvis did the "Jailhouse Rock." Leiber and Stoller also feted the King to "Hound Dog" and "Treat Me Nice."

They stood behind a song for Ben E. King called "Stand By Me" and the Coasters didn't talk back when "Yakity Yak" climbed the charts.

In 1959, Wilbert Harrison made a hit trip to "Kansas City." Before long, the Drifters dreamed their way to the big time with "On Broadway," years before Pittsburgher George Benson scored the song again in 1977.

Eighteen years later -- in 1995 -- the music of Leiber and Stoller made it to Broadway in "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the first of the jukebox musicals, a non-stop musical revue of their music.

The show rocked Broadway with more than 2,000 performances from Feb. 9, 1995 to Jan. 16, 2000. In 1995, "Smokey Joe's Cafe," titled after a Leiber and Stoller song, garnered Tony nominations for best musical, best featured actor and actress, best choreography and best director.

"Smokey Joe's" is making its CLO debut in Pittsburgh this week.

"It's sort of a marvelous collage of music and when you see it, it's uplifting and it's nostalgic," said singer Deb Lyons, who performed in the original London cast and for a time on Broadway. But it's not a show in the musical ilk of a "Mame," nor with the rawness of a "Rent."

"It's not like going to a cafe and it's not like going to a (traditional) Broadway show," Lyons said. "It's like you're seeing a series of musical vignettes yet, you will understand and relate to every person on the stage."

"Smokey Joe's" is all songs and dances with no spoken lines.

"There's not a real story, but there is a thread that weaves it together," Lyons said. "You can see the characters connect with one another through the piece. These people are friends."

They're friends who lived in a neighborhood that evokes the '60s and thus that era's music and dance.

And though Leiber-Stoller don't have Lennon-McCartney's name recognition, audiences recognize the songs several bars into each melody.

On the phone, Lyons launched into the first lines of "I'm A Woman."

"Oh right! I remember that song," is always the immediate audience reaction, she said.

Remember how the Temptations shuffled? And how that one babe in the Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon beach movies was always shimmying in the sand?

Baby-boomers will relate to those steps in the rhythm and blues numbers and "Teach Me How To Shimmy," Lyons said.

She plays the role the late Patti Darcy-Jones originated in the first Broadway cast, and sings a solo of "Pearl the Singer," a country rock tune and "Kansas City."

Lyons and Harrison White also perform of duet of Leiber and Stoller's "Don't" and "Love Me."

The music, choreographer Barry Ivan's direction and a really talented cast is what made "Smokey Joe" soar on Broadway and what separates it from a concert or cabaret show, Lyons said.

"You have to make the songs live and make people forget the original, and remember it with a fondness at the same time," she said.

Which is a something Lyons, a Florida native and Baby Boomer, has done in her career.

From 1993 to 1998 with she had time off from "Smokey Joe," Lyons toured the world with The Mamas & The Papas joining original members John Phillips and Denny Doherty.

Lyons performed the vocals made famous by the late Mama Cass Elliot and Lisa Brescia sang Michelle Phillips' parts.

At age 5, Lyons had watched the group on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and listened to Cass' iconic vocals on "California Dreamin," and "Monday, Monday."

Singing her hit "Dream a Little Dream of Me" gives Lyons goosebumps.

"I wasn't pretending to be Cass. I wasn't in a fat suit," she said. "It about evoking the sound and being to blend and be something that would serve the memory of Mama Cass and not imitate it," Lyons said. "It was an honor to sing her songs."

She's also performed in Broadway's "Jekyll &Hyde," off Broadway in "Beehive" and has been a backup vocalist, most recently weeks ago when singer Donna Summer appeared live on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and "The Today Show."

Before her performances of "Smokey Joe's" began, Lyons found Pittsburgh, which she'd visited -- she's not sure when or why -- a delight.

Lyons who lived in New York City for two decades, then moved an hour south to Belmar, N.J., noticed the live flowers planted on the city's bridges.

"They wouldn't last on the George Washington Bridge without somebody taking them stealing them, then selling them," she said.

WHAT'S UP Event: Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

Place: Benedum Center, downtown Pittsburgh.

When: Tuesday through July 20.

Tickets: $18.50 to $59.50.

Information: (412) 456-6666 or www.pittsburghCLO.org

Patti Conley can be reached online at [email protected]


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