As Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the Songs of Lieber and Stoller opened, members of the cast took the stage, some taking seats at tables, others gathering around a bar, and then the music began. Beautiful songs of love found, love lost and unrequited love filled the Ferndale Repertory Theatre on Saturday night. There were Ruby Baby, Kansas City, Fools Fall in Love, On Broadway, Charlie Brown, Hound Dog, Love Potion No. 9, Stand by Me – those swooning classics played over and over on the moldy-oldy stations, songs that stand the tests of time.
The show is a tribute to legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. You may not know their names, but you know their songs, which have been recorded by Elvis Presley, The Drifters, The Coasters, Dion, Perry Como, Buddy Holly, Ben E. King, Peggy Lee and Johnny Cash, just to name a few.
Several songs into Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which runs through April 7, it became clear that this is a different kind of animal than most local theater productions. There’s practically no dialogue and no plot. Instead, the audience is treated to 34 songs in a row. The idea of just stringing them together without contriving a plot is brilliant and liberating. Imagine how much better Elvis Presley’s movies would have been had he skipped the inane plot lines and just performed his music? With Smokey Joe’s Cafe we don’t need to waste time listening to the characters yakety yak. Instead we get to hear them sing Yakety Yak, a song made famous by The Coasters.
Besides, each song is its own story, like Trouble, a song made famous by Presley. Craig Woods, who has a Clark Gable quality, commands the stage when he sings the song, angrily declaring “Because I’m evil, my middle name is misery. Well I’m evil, so don’t you mess around with me.”
Kiara Hudlin, 18, had the audience both mesmerized and chuckling with her rendition of Don Juan. “Don Juan, Your money’s gone! And when your money’s gone, Don, your baby’s gone! Don Juan, Your baby’s gone! Stiff upper lip now, Don; You’ll have to carry on!”
Carl N. McGahan is another standout performer, playing the saxophone and singing in his rich baritone voice, He gives a moving rendition of Spanish Harlem. The show is fast paced, with hilarious dance sequences choreographed by Jessie Rawson Gelormino. A really amusing number is Teach Me to Shimmy, in which Mathew Lewis, Jordan Dobbins, Sarah Traywick and Tyler Egerer had the audience hooting, hollering and laughing.
Throughout the performance, the actors pour each other and consume shot after shot of what is obviously faux liquor, otherwise they be drunker than the title character in the song “D.W. Washburn,” performed by Egerer, often the show’s comedy foil.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe serves up a delicious, soul-satisfying platter of brilliant, toe-tapping songs. It’s a fun and thoroughly entertaining way to spend an evening. Catch it while you can.
Performances are Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 7. Tickets are $18 general, $16 for students over 15 and in college; $16 for seniors and $10 for youth ages three to 14 years old. A $2 Historical Building Preservation Fee will be added to each ticket. The Heart Theatre is located at 447 Main St. in Ferndale. Tickets are available at ferndalerep.org or by calling (707) 786-5483.