Upbeat (for the most part), up front, slangy and sly, the songs of Leiber and Stoller defined the popular voice of Fifties America. They began working together in 1951, at the outbreak of rock 'n' roll, and their mutual love of blues and boogie led them to transmute black music into white pop. This was no rip off. These guys took the previously ghetto- ised sound and widened the groove and its popular appeal. The million- selling sound was massively influential, not least for songwriting giants Gerry Goffin and Carole King, not to mention Lennon and McCartney, who took R&B places it had never been.
In Smokey Joe's Cafe, a compilation show of their greatest hits, the mix is there for all to see. The all-American cast has the goods and, boy, do they deliver. A seven-piece band and six black and three white performers kick hell out of a catalogue that runs to "Yakety Yak", "Hound Dog", "Stand By Me" and 36 others. Given the absence of dialogue or any real structure, Joey McKneely's snappy, ever-inventive choreography keeps the pace pumping. But even his witty and seemingly endless repertoire of everything from snake-hipped gyrations to Madison-style line-ups, can't solve the basic problem of the compilation show.
It's a bit like spending too long in an art gallery: after a while, everything begins to seem the same. There are some solid gold classics but, while Leiber and Stoller worked a myriad variations on the Fifties and Sixties format, their range actually wasn't very wide. The first half climaxes with BJ Crosby scorching into "Saved" with a sound so strong she could wake the dead. But a few minutes into the second half, a numbing sense of repetition sets in, not helped by efficient but uninspiring arrangements and an ugly red set that does little for anybody involved.
Director Jerry Zaks's answer is to go for broke. You can't argue with that, when the aptly named DeLee Lively lets rip in "Teach Me How to Shimmy", shaking everything she's got in a manner that could get her arrested, but when the hyperactive Victor Trent Cook gives us his overplayed Elvis impersonation, you feel like taking cover. Too often the singing turns into vocal athletics. You are impressed by the power, but the songs are left standing.
The least flashy performances are by far the best. Robert Torti is proof that the suave Fifties' crooner is alive and well, while Deb Lyons gets on with the job of making you listen to what she's singing about. When the women gang up for "I'm a Woman" the ushers would be advised to hold the fire extinguishers. But Lyons's rich, rough take on "Pearl's a Singer" is the real high point: her casual "so what" attitude a massive relief in a night that teeters on the brink of overkill n
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