If the names Leiber and Stoller don’t ring a bell, chances are their songs will.
From “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” to “Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me” and “Love Potion Number 9,” lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller were the creative team behind some of the most memorable songs of the 1950s and 1960s. Their rock and roll hits – infused with a heapin’ helpin’ of rhythm and blues – helped jumpstart the careers of everyone from Elvis Presley and The Coasters to Ben E. King, The Drifters and more.
In 1995, “Smokey Joe’s Café” brought nearly 40 of the songwriting duo’s hits to Broadway in a fast-paced musical revue that became the longest running revue in Broadway history. And the Alhambra Theatre & Dining’s production, which opened last week, lives up to that record, offering a high-energy, fast-paced trip down memory lane in a show where every number is a hit.
The Alhambra’s cast of five men and four women ably sings and dances its way through the Leiber and Stoller catalog, capturing both the innocence and optimism of the 1950s. Clad in retro-style bowling shirts for the men and vintage pinup-style dresses for the women, the cast seems right at home singing such popular tunes as “Dance with Me,” “On Broadway,” “Young Blood” and “Kansas City.” The men’s voices blend together particularly well on such songs as “Searchin,” “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown,” with Peter Jackson providing the basso profondo required for maximum effect.
The show’s doo wop-style choreography is punctuated with ample amounts of humor, as the cast brings the stories behind such songs as “Love Potion Number 9” and “Searchin’” to life. The Alhambra production also features a good amount of cast-audience interaction, with guests being called upon to join in the fun. One such scene had the audience in stitches as a hapless male audience member found himself in the clutches of a song siren played to perfection by Dayna Richardson.
While the show’s first act is more of a straight revue – with the cast members singing and dancing to live music performed off stage – Act II adopts a more theatrical feel, as the stage is transformed into Smokey Joe’s Café, complete with the band on stage and café tables, where cast members act out the vignettes of the show’s tunes. The second act also makes judicious yet effective use of reprises: When Sarah Sanders first sings “Fools Fall in Love” in Act I, for example, it is with all the joy and unbridled enthusiasm of one fully under the spell of a new romance. Yet when she reprises the number in Act II while drowning her sorrows in Smokey Joe’s Café, the song becomes a cynical lover’s lament for the newly brokenhearted.
By the time last call rolls around at Smokey Joe’s Café, the audience is singing and clapping along after an evening spent reminiscing to the soundtrack of their lives.
Smokey Joe’s Café runs through Sept. 4 at the Alhambra Theatre & Dining in Jacksonville. For tickets or more information, visit www.alhambrajax.com.