Musical Genius of Leiber & Stoller Shines in ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ at the Ordway

If you haven’t heard of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two nice Jewish fellows from the East Coast who met in Los Angeles in 1950, you’ve likely heard their songs. Their many, many toe-tapping melodies popularized by talent such as Elvis Presley, The Drifters, Peggy Lee and the Shangri-Las.  You know these little diddies: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Fools Fall in Love,” “Stand by Me,” “On Broadway,” “Charlie Brown,” “Kansas City,” “Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion #9,” and countless others whose lyrics and tunes can dance in your head all day. 

For decades Leiber and Stoller created numerous top hits spanning rhythm and blues, pop, jazz, rock and roll, and cabaret. Although the duo isn’t able to make new music together (last month marked the eighth anniversary of the death of lyricist Leiber; composer Stoller is still kickin’ it at age 86), their legendary genius lives on the theatrical stage with Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe is the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history and was nominated for seven Tony awards. But you don’t have to be where the lights are bright on Broadway to enjoy it. Showcasing nearly 40 of Leiber & Stoller hits, Smokey Joe’s Cafe opened September 10 at the Ordway Performing Arts Center in St. Paul and runs through September 22.

Even if you’ve seen Smokey Joe’s Cafe before, you’re going to want to see this Ordway Original, said Rod Kaats, who became Ordway’s producing artistic director last February after 30 years producing and directing shows on Broadway, across the country and internationally. 

Rod Kaats became the producing artistic director at the Ordway in 2018. Smokey Joe’s Cafe is the first performance he programmed for the St. Paul center.

“This season is the first one I’ve programmed and we kick it off with this new production of Smokey Joe’s,” he said. “This new production made some changes and I’m partial to this version. It has a young cast and a fresh take on the music. There’s no one whose not going to like it,” added Kaats (pronounced like “Kates” not like the Jewish surname “Katz” — he’s not Jewish, he says he is “Jewish adjacent” because his children are since their mother is). 

Alison Solomon, however, is Jewish. She’s the assistant director and choreographer under Joshua Bergasse (Broadway’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and On the Town, Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, and NBC’s Smash), and says as a child, when her Catholic friends were celebrating their religious holidays like Easter and Christmas, her parents would take her and her siblings into New York City to see Broadway shows (We didn’t ask if they went out for a Chinese buffet dinner too). So she learned an appreciation of theater and dance from a young age, an early impetus for her career path.

Solomon used her skills teaching the Smokey Joe’s cast elaborate and entertaining dance moves they could do easily while singing — they make it look easy, but moving from one acrobatic move to a side step or doo-wop or the floss without missing a beat or note is no easy feat.

“To be in this show they have to be amazing singers, great dancers and great actors. It is an ensemble show, but the dancing while singing was hard work for the four principals as they don’t really get any breaks,” she said of Kevin Brown, Jr., Shavey Brown, Kendall Debose and Dwight Leslie. “My challenge is to work them enough so that they know the material really well and so that I don’t wear them out or strain their voices or their bodies.”

Another top reason to see the show other than the incredible dancing, Solomon says: “It is the music that everyone knows. No matter how old you are, or young you are, you will recognize about 80 percent of the songs. The music is just incredible.”

And that unforgettable, toe-tapping, sing-a-long music is from several decades of a collaboration of two Jewish kids from the East Coast who met in L.A. and created rhythm and blues, pop, jazz and rock and roll hits that will live on l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.

This tribute to Leiber & Stoller, which kicks off the Ordway’s 2019-2020 season, is a great way to end the Jewish year 5779 if you’re seeking something fun, energizing and toe-tapping just before ringing in a sweet new year this Rosh Hashanah.

Buy tickets at starting at $30. Remaining performances are at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on weekends and 7:30 p.m. weekday nights through September 22, 2019.

Author Sheree R. Curry is an award-winning journalist and long-time TC Jewfolk board member. She lives in Maple Grove, Minnesota, where she raised sons to love the theater.