September 26, 2008

Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ to Debut at Lewis Family Playhouse

By Wendy Leung

RANCHO CUCAMONGA - More and more homeowners are going through foreclosures. Bankers on Wall Street are in tears. But don't tell the performers of the Rancho Cucamonga Community Theatre program they're supposed to be sad.

Starting tonight, the cast of ''Smokey Joe's Cafe'' will break into song at least 40 times during each performance of the Broadway revue that focuses on 1950s and '60s music. Divas in sultry dresses will shimmy across the Lewis Family Playhouse stage. Guys with their baritone numbers will chase after them.

For about two hours, nobody will be thinking about the gloomy economy.

''People want that kind of escape at the theater,'' said Patrick Hediger, the city's cultural arts coordinator. ''Plus we keep our prices reasonable.''

For the price of a movie and popcorn, a community theater performance is still viable despite a teetering economy.

''Why go to L.A. to spend $150 when you can spend $15 for something just as good?'' said Kelley Squires, one of the show's stars. ''Smokey Joe's Cafe'' is the quintessential definition of community theater. The venue is local, the prices are reasonable and chances are the audience members know somebody who's on stage.

Squires is a choir and musical theater teacher at Rancho Cucamonga High School. She has been blasting the inboxes of school district employees about the show and convincing her students to see her in action.

''Community theater is my bread and butter,'' Squires said. ''I have students who say, 'I want to go to New York' and I say, 'That's great. But if you don't, you can still sing your whole life.'''

Rancho Cucamonga Community Theatre gives opportunities to veterans like Squires, who has been in more than 80 performances, and budding singers like Amanda Castro, 18, who will make her debut tonight.

U'Pal King, 52, a grandmother with a gospel background, once admired community theater in the audience and now she'll get to sing her heart out. And it's not just family members who will be coming to watch King's performance.

''Even when I'm out shopping for the dress and shoes, I'm inviting people, telling them, 'Hey, you better come see me perform in this dress,''' King said.

Cast members are quick to point out that not everything about ''Smokey Joe's Cafe'' is typical of community theater.

Hediger said community theater sometimes has a reputation of having wobbly sets and 19-year-old actors playing 50-year-olds.

''Community theater doesn't have to be that,'' Hediger said. ''I like that we're raising the bar.''

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