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The '50s Go Legit

Smokey Joe's Café
By Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Virginia Theater
245 West 52nd Street
239-6200

I met Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller once--in 1968, while pursuing an abortive profile of Hilly Elkins. Elkins would eventually produce Oh! Calcutta, but at the time he was shopping for properties, and for an hour or two we sat in Stoller's spacious Upper East Side living room while Leiber regaled us with tales of Red Bird Records, home of the Dixie Cups and the Shangri-Las as well as some talented junior Leiber & Stollers. The punch line was that the two geniuses had sold Red Bird because they valued their knees. They wanted to go legit. As proof, Stoller accompanied Leiber on a soft-shoe version of the recently penned "Is That All There Is?," which would later be a hit for Peggy Lee--their last ever.

These yarns promised quite a musical, an updated Guys and Dolls replete with gangsters cracking wise, hustlers and hopefuls of at least two races, and catchy songs by the bucketful. But the promise went unkept, and although Leiber & Stoller have finally gone legit, so it remains. Smokey Joe's Cafe is a Leiber & Stoller revue with no book and scarcely an ad lib. Twenty of its 38 songs were written in the '50s, only two post-1968--one of which, the oft-reprised sop to continuity "Neighborhood," provides the show's only totally revolting moments, although the "Spanish Harlem" ballet comes close. "Neighborhood"'s nausea quotient reflects its direct and explicit appeal to a nostalgia that elsewhere isn't as flagrant as it might be. Of course this audience, whose median age looked to be about 42 on the show's fifth night, is buying warm, patronizing memories--the doubly reassuring sense that since things were better and you dumber back in the day, any difficulty you might now experience is assuredly not your fault. But within these parameters the condescension is kept to a modicum.

The nostalgia is most egregious on two teen-romance fantasias originated by the Drifters and Ben E. King, "Dance With Me" and "There Goes My Baby," and the fake-fun Coasters medley that opens Act Two, which demeans the teen-oppression fantasia "Yakety Yak" and is saddled as well with "That Is Rock & Roll," which wasn't altogether uncondescending to begin with. Not that director Jerry Zaks has many other options. Proudly, the show's press kit cites one of this seminal songwriting-production team's most quotable quotes: "We didn't write songs, we wrote records." And indeed, those records were stagable minidramas--Leiber & Stoller coached the Coasters into the tightest, funniest live act in rock and roll. But for just that reason they don't lend themselves to interpretation like good little well-made pop songs, or like rock and roll classics either. Leiber & Stoller were without question the finest contract composers of the '50s, and certain of their hits, notably the Elvis specials "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock," have passed into the canon on sheer notoriety. But any number of Chuck Berry and Little Richard titles pack an irresistible universality the team achieved only twice: with the early blues readymade "Kansas City," taken way too fast midway through the first act, and the late pop-soul anthem "Stand by Me," the not all that rousing choral finale.

This is one reason so many of the show's high points are obscure: the late Coasters showpieces "D.W. Washburn," an I'd-rather-be-drinking shrug followed unconvincingly by the always overdone LaVern Baker gospel half-parody "Saved," and "Teach Me How To Shimmy," featuring supernatural vibration by resident blond bombshell De-Lee Lively; "Trouble," slyly transformed from the macho pseudoblues boast of the King Creole soundtrack to an evil-woman psuedoblues boast shared by Lively and resident brown bomber Brenda Braxton; and two '60s copyrights, "Don Juan" and "Some Cats Know," that Braxton renders as daunting lessons in sexual savoir-faire. And it's also reason to celebrate the chestnuts the show manages to equal and even top: "Young Blood," which presages wittier and straighter Coasters rips than the company's four black males can in fact deliver; Victor Trent Cook's gleeful Elvis-imitator takeoff on "Treat Me Right"; Cook's stratospheric claim on the Ben E. King melodrama "I (Who Have Nothing)"; and, most memorably, "Shopping for Clothes," the most finished of all the Coasters' playlets, which alone inspires the production values and choreographic pizzazz I thought the musical theater was supposed to be about.

As for the rest, be thankful that it's far from an embarrassment. Although Zaks might have taken it up a notch, he might also have ruined it, because in the end he doesn't have the voices. Not that his nine hard-working guys and dolls are short on chops, or foolish enough to think chops are enough--rarely do their vocal coaches obtrude. Although Michael Park's permanently clenched forehead made me miss the Fonz (made me miss Jesse on Full House), and Ken Ard and Adrian Bailey barely get by as matched Denzel-Washingtons-with-tonsils, designated bass man Frederick B. Owens does everything that is asked of him and more, and even when he mugs too much Cook's comic gifts carry the show. Veteran B.J. Crosby, a pop-gospel belter in the lean-timbred Patti LaBelle-Jennifer Holliday mold, is the kind of second-rater whose bravura turns makes ignorant theatregoers think they feel the spirit (memo to Zaks: wouldn't it be a lot funnier--and less obvious--if Cook capped "Dance With Me" by strutting off with Crosby's fine fat self instead of fleeing her?). But she does fill her slot, and the other women are consistently winning, none more than the lanky, experienced-looking Pattie Darcy Jones, the only cast member with serious rock credentials. Brassy, soulful, and, well, smoky, Jones commands Smokey Joe's Cafe's most distinctive voice--and this woman spent four years singing backup for Cher. If that doesn't tell you why pop fans have ignored Broadway ever since the Brill Building came down, go back to your Margaret Whiting reissues. Yet significantly, Jones seems ill at ease when she's not singing. Her stage limitations are one reason why the closest she gets to a high point is an interracial love duet.

The vocal personalities are in the studios, the actors are at casting calls that fail to attract any Henry-Winklers-with-tonsils, and ever since they sold Red Bird Records, the finest contract composers of the '50s have been writing art songs that nobody except William Bolcom and Joan Morris give a damn about--including me, and I've tried. It's enough to make the stubbornest nostalgia-hater think maybe the world is going to hell in a handcar after all.

Village Voice, Mar. 21, 1995