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Communique: Leiber & Stoller Musical Review "Smokey Joe's Cafe" At Thalian Hall

Erik Maasch
The men of "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, The Coasters, Christine Kitrell, The Drifters--these great acts (and more) performed music written by the dynamic songwriting duo, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller. Opera House Theatre Company presents the musical revue of their most popular tunes, spanning from the early '50s to the early '80s. 

Smokey Joe's Cafe (which doesn't include the song of the title) features a larger cast than usual, with 5 women and 8 men dancing and singing these pop standards to life on Thalian Hall's Mainstage. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday, July 4-5 @ 8:00pm, then Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through July 22. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8:00pm; Sundays at 3:00pm.

Listen to longtime Opera House Director/Choreographer Ron Chisholm above; see our extended conversation below. Tickets for the show are available through the Thalian Hall Box Office

Credit WHQR/gg
Ron Chisholm

Gina:    How long have you been doing stuff for Opera House?

Ron:             I started in the 1991 season. So, this is my 27th year and 28th season with them.

Gina:            That's a long time.

Ron:             That's a very long time. We were all very young back then.

Gina:            [Laughs] What happened?

Ron:             We got old unfortunately.

Gina:            Tell me about this show for people that have never heard of it, never seen it. What is it?

Ron:             It is a musical review. There is no spoken dialogue, and it is the songs of Stoller and Leiber, who had their first hit with "You Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog" in 1952. They continue to have hits all the way through the eighties.

Quite a remarkable songwriting team including "Jailhouse Rock" and "Stand By Me" and "Pearl's a Singer." They have quite a catalog of songs. The show deals with the 42 "best" songs that the people who put the show together liked from them. I did it a little bit different as the show is traditionally done with five guys and four girls. I have five girls and eight guys doing the show. So, I've attempted to bring a little larger production value to some of the group numbers just so that there's a different presentation of it. Smokey Joe's just reopened Off-Broadway about a month ago. They revived it up in New York.

Gina:            And you're a choreographer …

Ron:             Yes.

Gina:            How would you describe your choreography? What are you like as a choreographer?

Credit Erik Maasch
Terrill Williams in "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

Ron:             I'm very picky in "style of the period" and what the intent of what the movements should be no matter what show I'm choreographing. In this show, it's been a challenge for them. So many of the songs were done by groups. Between The Temptations and The Chaparrals and some of the girl groups and the guy groups, it's their movement. It wasn't just step-touching. Their movement all gave a reason to the story they're telling. What I like about this show and these composers, in particular, and songwriters is all of these songs tell a story from beginning to end. That's a strong point to get across - especially with a youthful cast that sit in another world. It's like the rap songs. They have a beginning, a middle and an end - just like a book.

These are very much story songs, and they have to tell the story. The audience hears them again for the first time goes, "Oh yeah, I remember what that's about now" - even though we all know the chorus to all these songs.

Gina:            What are some of your favorite pieces in it?

Ron:             I like "On Broadway." It's an iconic song. I'm ending the act with it. It traditionally doesn't end with it. So, I've taken that and added girls to it. It is probably the one of the two huge production numbers that everybody in the entire cast, all 13, are onstage dancing and singing.

Gina:            What's the other one?

Credit Erik Maasch
Elisa Eklof Smith and Joe Basquill in "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

Ron:             I also like the Gospel song "Saved." It starts out with a DWI Washburn - that's a takeoff on a Vaudeville skit with a bum - and then it goes into "Saved," which is a huge gospel number. That's the other number that has all 13 of them actually having to move and dance and sing harmonies at the same time. 

Gina:            Are you their vocal coach as well?

Ron:             No, Lorene Walsh is vocal coaching them. She's done a great job constantly hammering them because there's so many harmonies in the show. Every time they sing, they're all singing harmonies. It's been a constant battle to make it comfortable for them, to make it all second nature by the time we get there tomorrow night. And it has just from running it

Gina:            How is it costumed? Do they change costumes every act, or...?

Ron:             They change per section of the show. There's a couple of novelty songs in there. "Kansas City" is one, so we present it more in a nightclub atmosphere. Debbie Sheu did the costumes. So, it has a contemporary feel of the 70s, 80s - 50s for "Jailhouse Rock" - novelty numbers get the treatment of actual costumes for them, which is nice. Terry Collins did the set design, which I just loved. I asked for it to actually be in a cafe setting, and he transformed the stage. It looks like a cafe. So, that's exciting for the audience. Because the show is a review, I'm bringing it to the audience that they're going to a club to watch a performance of songs.

Gina:            Doing a review is different than doing a show where it's just numbers instead of kind of a storyline throughout. Has that been hard? Is that hard for you to do that?

Ron:             On one hand it is because you have to work in a process on why they put the songs in the order that they put the songs to somwheat tell a story of connection. It starts about girls, "Ruby Baby" and "There Goes My Baby," and it's set into sections that they deal with the same idea and story.

Credit Erik Maasch
Emma Hutchinson (L) and Samantha Ray in "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

Once they catch on to that, even if they don't catch onto it, everybody will have their favorite songs. That's how the show's laid out - there's a flow to it to make it not so jarring to the audience. It's falling in love and unrequited love as the first one. So much of their stuff. And then it's, you know, "I'm a Woman" is one of their big hits, you know, and that's in a section with You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog." So I mean, it all plays off of each other. The songs very much play off of each other in the different sections.

Gina:            And you have live musicians.

Ron:             We do, we have an incredible band. And our drummer, tTm came back in from Asheville, he was playing within the pit for 14 years for us and moved to Asheville and he came back to play this show. And he's co-musical directing with Lorene. They've gone back and forth because so much of it is determined, picks up by the drumset as opposed to a piano intro. The drum just goes for the beat and that's the tempo they fly at. So that's exciting. You know, sax, synthesizer, incredible percussion, a section on top of the drums. It's all these percussions that are added to get the full sound, the pop sound of the different time periods, which is nice. They sound quite amazing with the base and there's only one horn, just saxophone, Sheila Hardison playing three different saxophones for the three different sounds of the time period.  Just to come hear the music, it's amazing. To hear it live. 

I would like to tell everybody to come out and see it. Bring your friends, bring your family, bring your kids. You'd be surprised at how many younger people actually know these songs, that they're plugged into, movies, they're plugged into TV shows. It's a great evening of just fun. You'll sing along, we encourage it to come along with the journey of their songs that are so culturally American.


Credit Erik Maasch
Joe Basquill (L), Jason Aycock, Jeff Hidek, Mathis Turner from "Smokey Joe's Cafe"