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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ celebrates nostalgic work of Leiber, Stoller

Jennifer Kleinkauf, Amy D’Orazi, CJ Lorentz and Emily Cleveland star in “Smokey Joe’s Café.” (Emily Jones Photography)
Jennifer Kleinkauf, Amy D’Orazi, CJ Lorentz and Emily Cleveland star in “Smokey Joe’s Café.” (Emily Jones Photography)

When it came to songwriting, lyricist Jerome Leiber and composer Michael Stoller had the Midas touch.

Leiber, who passed away in 2011, and Stoller penned some of the most popular songs of the 1950s and ’60s, including “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City,” “Yakety Yak,” “On Broadway” and “I (Who Have Nothing).”

The pair were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years later.

Leiber and Stoller received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994 and received the National Academy of Songwriters’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.

Between those accolades, Stephen Helper, Jack Viertel and Otis Sallid compiled dozens of the pair’s biggest songs into a musical revue, “Smokey Joe’s Café,” which premiered on Broadway in March 1995.

“Smokey Joe’s Café” was nominated for seven Tony Awards that year and won the Grammy for best musical show album the following year.

The Broadway production closed Jan. 16, 2000, after 2,036 performances. The show also was performed in the West End and Argentina and was revived Off-Broadway last year.

The Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre will close its 2019 season with a production of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” which opens Aug. 8 and runs through Aug. 25.

“Smokey Joe’s Café” is directed by Joseph Lyons and features the following performers: Jackson Bouchard, Matthew Boyd, Josian Brett, Emily Cleveland, Anthony DeLeon, Amy D’Orazi, David Eldridge, Jen Kleinkauf and C.J. Lorentz.

This production is Lyons’ first as director, though he’s been involved with the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre for years, first as a performer, then as assistant choreographer, then as lead choreographer.

Lyons also is choreographing “Smokey Joe’s Café.”

Lyons was interested in working on “Smokey Joe’s Café” because he had grown up listening to many Lieber and Stoller songs with his mother and grandmother.

“I was really excited at the chance to choreograph this music and stage this music,” he said. “Leiber and Stoller wrote incredible American rock ’n’ roll hits that really have withstood the test of time and still stand up.”

Unlike jukebox musicals, which usually have, at least, a thin plot, “Smokey Joe’s Café” is a musical revue that focuses entirely on the music, with a group of performers singing one song right after the other.

Leiber and Stoller-penned tunes performed in the revue include “Hound Dog,” which was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton and made famous by Elvis Presley; several songs by Presley, including “Jailhouse Rock” and “Treat Me Nice”; several songs by the Coasters, including “Yakety Yak” and “Shoppin’ for Clothes”; several songs by the Drifters, including “Fools Fall in Love” and “Ruby Baby”; and Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”

“It’s really music that everyone knows and loves …,” Lyons said. “I’m excited to have the audience have that experience of ‘Oh, yeah! I know this. I love this.’ ”

The lack of plot gave Lyons the opportunity to stage the show in his own way. Wanting to show that Leiber and Stoller’s music has stood the test of time, Lyons decided to place the performers in a modern-day bar.

Throughout the show, touches of the 1950s and ’60s are added via props and set dressing. Lyons also wanted to pay homage to the singers who made these songs famous.

“We’re using things like projections to connect the now to the then,” he said. “We’re all dancing onstage to ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ and, at the same time, we have projections on the side of Elvis in his iconic black and white stripes and the leather jacket.”

“Smokey Joe’s Café,” Lyons thinks, isn’t produced often because of the vocal and movement requirements of the show: 40 songs, plus 40 songs’ worth of choreography.

He praises the cast, which includes performers from Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Seattle and New York, for being able to execute those requirements.

“We really lucked out to find people who can really sing the paint off the walls and at the same time are incredible movers,” Lyons said. “And we have people who are really excellent dancers and gymnasts even, so we’re able to utilize their skills to make something really incredible.”

But the nostalgia tied to many of the songs in “Smokey Joe’s Café” is what Lyons thinks keeps audiences coming to the revue.

“There’s going to be a moment, or several, where they hear some of this music, and it’s going to pull back some of these memories that they evoke,” he said. “No matter what the decade is, we still all want the same things. We all want to love and be loved. We all experience loss.

“These things never go away, and I think they certainly entertain us and put a smile on our face, but they also tug at our heartstrings. There’s a lot of nostalgia with this.”

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