Knocking the Rock

Four-time Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks has guided more than a dozen Broadway plays and musicals with a steady hand, smoothing over dramatic bumps and investing all of his projects with a seamless artistry. His talent for polished cohesion works against him here, however, dulling rock's raw edges by blending ballads, novelty songs, and teen anthems into a bland, unvaried concoction. Credit for the revue's brisk pace goes to McKneely's lively musical staging, chock full of spinning dance moves and bopping enthusiasm. Taking its title from a 1953 Leiber and Stoller hit recorded by the Robins (an early incarnation of the Coasters), the musical enjoys one brief flicker of narrative thread, presenting the songs as taking place in a club named Smokey Joe's Cafe, a motif that is interjected quietly at the musical's halfway mark by the introduction of an additional set panel and a few chairs and tables. But it's abandoned just as unceremoniously a few songs later.

These songs, written between 1952 and 1974, formed the soundtrack to watershed changes in American culture: Women traded their pillbox hats for birth control pills; race relations moved from the back of the bus into the burning streets of nearly every major U.S. city; and Leiber and Stoller went from writing for the dynamic Elvis to writing for the prefabricated Monkees. This musical collage completely ignores such cultural/societal cataclysms, denying the audience even a visual frame of reference as costume designer William Ivey Long forgoes evocative miniskirts and tie-dyed shirts in favor of period-spanning Las Vegas cabaret-act spangle.

Granted, creating a viable book or a dramatic concept for a revue is a tricky feat, one that stymied two earlier dramatic attempts based on Leiber and Stoller's work: 1980's Only in America and 1983's Yakety Yak, both of which failed to make it out of their London birthplaces. In a somewhat similar vein, both Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story and Beatlemania tried re-creating rock concerts (both produced mixed results), while the 1982 revue Rock 'N Roll! The first 5,000 Years -- co-produced by Dick Clark and showcasing actors impersonating rockers from Little Richard to the Police -- disappeared after 32 wretched performances. Additionally, 1985's flop revue Leader of the Pack dramatized doo-woppers Darlene Love and Ellie Greenwich at various stages of their lives, only to end its Broadway run in a court of law when a few unhappy investors claimed they were never fully informed of the immense financial dent a theatrical bomb could make.

Despite these disappointments, the American musical theater has successfully incorporated rock music through the years, from Bye Bye Birdie to Hair to the current smash Rent. Like rock and roll itself, Broadway does a better job of stealing inspiration than honoring it. I think I'll pass on the next rock revue that comes along. Even though the lights are bright "On Broadway," give me my battered but reliable turntable and let me groove to the oldies on vinyl.

Smokey Joe's Cafe -- The Songs of Leiber and Stoller.
Words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; directed by Jerry Zaks; with Darrian C. Ford, Alltrinna Grayson, Mary Ann Hermansen, and Jerry Tellier. Through April 27 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts (954-462-0222), then April 29 through May 4 at the Jackie Gleason Theater (673-7300). See also "Calendar Listings.

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