Knocking the Rock

When I was a teenager, my widowed grandmother left Vermont to live with my family in Florida, where, separated from her friends and other family, she turned to television for companionship. Unfathomable to me, her favorite hour each week was spent watching Lawrence Welk and his clean-cut cast stroll down memory lane. Self-righteously, I knew that my old age could never encompass such a diversion: Born out of rhythm and blues, rock music -- which triumphed over show tunes in my growing record collection -- contained too much soul to be served on video white bread by homogeneous milquetoasts covering Bowie, Joplin, or the Stones.

And yet 30 years after the Who sang "Hope I die before I get old," unheeding baby boomers eagerly line up to see Broadway revues that use Big Chill-like scores to heat up box-office receipts. The latest golden-oldie rock and roll extravaganza, Smokey Joe's Cafe -- The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, provides yet more proof that the innocuous, easy-on-the-ears Muzak of my grandmother's beloved Lawrence Welk Show -- which still airs in weekly reruns on local PBS station Channel 2 -- has more in common with my beloved in-your-face devil's music than I ever imagined.

The national tour of Smokey Joe's Cafe (I saw it in Tampa prior to its stops at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and the Jackie Gleason Theater) is one of four productions of the show now appearing on three different continents. Nominated for seven Tony Awards and sporting a Grammy Award for Best Musical Cast Recording, this nostalgic salute to one of rock's most successful songwriting teams plays to big crowds in London, Australia, and on Broadway, where the original production continues to pack them in after more than two years.

Lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller started out writing rhythm and blues because there was no such thing as rock and roll, until they and a handful of others created it. After Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton scored a hit in 1953 with Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog," the songwriting team went on to spend two decades at the top of the charts with songs such as "Yakety Yak," "Love Potion #9," "There Goes My Baby," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Stand by Me," among many more. Originally penned for Elvis Presley, the Coasters, Ben E. King, the Drifters, and others, these hits ultimately endured far beyond the next week's Top 10 countdown to become near standards, covered by a bizarre mix of artists that includes the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Count Basie, Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf, Luther Vandross, and Chet Atkins, to name just a few. The duo has received recognition for their body of work with inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Record Producers Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Both born in 1933, Leiber and Stoller remain active as consultants to the show, discovering that the ticket-buying public will still need them and still feed them when they're 64.

Opening and closing with 1974's "Neighborhood," whose lyrics recall faded pictures in a scrapbook, the revue flips through 38 additional musical snapshots, much the same way a motorist channel-hops the dial on a car radio. Jettisoning dialogue, chronology, and any discernible concept, Smokey Joe's Cafe more closely resembles pioneering disc jockey Alan Freed's early multi-act rock and roll concerts than it does previous theatrical catalogue shows such as Ain't Misbehavin' (Fats Waller), Eubie! (Eubie Blake), and Sophisticated Ladies (Duke Ellington). The nine-member ensemble cast, singing into microphone headgear, expertly coasts through Joey McKneely's finger-popping synchronized dance turns while basking in the spotlights that often dart across the stage in designer Paul Gallo's homage to rock-concert lighting. In a re-creation of designer Heidi Landesman's original Broadway set, panels painted with the likenesses of Elvis, Buddy Holly, and old 45 r.p.m. record labels glide mechanically about the stage, bringing to mind a giant Fifties jukebox plopping down the next platter.

Without having characters to play or unfolding stories to tell, the hard-working performers go for broke on every number. In one of the revue's most inventive moments, Darrian C. Ford checks out a trio of strutting, headless zoot suits while "Shoppin' for Clothes." Later Mary Ann Hermansen shakes it up and throws down, setting her fringed outfit flying as willing student Jerry Tellier pleads "Teach Me How to Shimmy." But except for the portrayal of youthful drifters hitting the road on a bouncing train ride in "Keep on Rollin'" and a poignant ballet set to "Spanish Harlem," these stage interpretations fail to evoke the same emotions as the original songs, with most of them receiving a treatment usually reserved for beauty-pageant production numbers; that includes the rebellious "Saved," presented here as a gospel hymn sung by choir-robed Alltrinna Grayson, and the looking-for-love "Searchin'," performed by Ford in a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap. On surer footing, the superb seven-member band (billed as the Night Managers) emerges at the top of the second act from its obscured upstage position to solo on "Stay a While" and to jam with the singers on "That Is Rock & Roll," "Yakety Yak," and "Charlie Brown" in a short-lived vignette that replaces the musical's daffy stagings with a little rock realism.

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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