‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ pays tribute to rock classics

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Arena Stage once again celebrates the American spirit in its season closer, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” the powerhouse show that opened in 1995 on Broadway to become the longest-running musical revue and earned a Grammy Award for the original cast recording.

This tribute to composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller bursts with 39 of their rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues hits such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Stand By Me.” Each song is brought to life by a dynamic company that includes Tony Award winner Levi Kreis and Helen Hayes Award winners E. Faye Butler and Nova Y. Payton.

Helming the production is director Randy Johnson, creator of “A Night With Janis Joplin,” which ran at Arena twice before heading to Broadway with Mary Bridget Davies, one of five current Tony Award nominees for Best Actress in a Musical.

“I love regional theater, so when [Arena Artistic Director] Molly [Smith] asked me back to do this show, I was thrilled to explore the catalog of two musical geniuses,” Mr. Johnson told The Washington Times. “My friend Mike Stoller wrote classic American music that comes to life with a wonderful choreographer and an outstanding cast. This is a collaborative team creating magic from music that has proven romance and appeal.

“For Mike’s 81st birthday last year, he asked me to conduct a show about the story of Leiber and Stoller and what they mean to several generations of Americans. I immersed myself in their music and learned we’re not just talking about pretty melodies and poetical moments. They wrote lyrics about social and political problems. My goal was not to replicate what other directors have done but to find the context of the songs and how they relate to our lives, then let the music guide me.

“The things you discover as a child create the tapestry of who you are. Music came to us in a different way in the ‘60s, in jukeboxes and social environments. While most children in my generation were listening to ‘Bibbity Bobbity Boo,’ at age 5 I was touched by Janis Joplin’s ‘Cheap Thrills’ and later by Nina Simone,” the director said. “After my parents took me to Las Vegas, I knew I would be in show business. At first, I was an actor, but once I began putting on rock and roll shows, lightning struck. I realized I should be in writing and directing.”

A graduate of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, Mr. Johnson boasts three decades of credits. Among his highlights are directing the West Coast premiere of the Larry Kramer AIDS drama “The Normal Heart,” starring Academy Award winners Richard Dreyfus and Kathy Bates; producing “Always Patsy Cline” at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium and executive producing its cast album; and writing and directing “Conway Twitty: The Man the Music and the Legend.”

He co-conceived and directed “Elvis The Concert,” which was a sellout at Radio City Music Hall, and the world premiere of “Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth” at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Among his favorite ventures are staging a star-studded concert for Pope Benedict XVI in New York, Tammy Wynette’s final tour, and “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” Lorna Luft’s tribute to her mother, Judy Garland.

Like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Kreis credits music heard during childhood with his tastes today.

“I first became aware of Leiber and Stoller when I was a little guy of five,” Mr. Kreis told The Times. “My mother was president of Brenda Lee’s fan club, and they became close friends, so I got to be backstage with her and on her tour bus. She sang gospel that blended into rock-a-billy, songs like ‘Kansas City’ and ‘Saved’ by Leiber and Stoller. Her music and theirs are indelible memories of my early life. I feel blessed to have learned from a living legend.”

Mr. Kreis, 32, grew up in Tennessee expecting to be a gospel singer. He even released his first album at age 12, but the serendipitous discovery of his mom’s 45 rpm recording of “Great Balls of Fire” and the full piano scholarship he received to Vanderbilt University during junior high school redirected his dreams.

By 2006, he was composing and singing. While waiting for recording offers, he answered a cattle call and walked away with his first professional role as Roger in the national tour of “Rent.” Casting directors took notice, and he soon was invited to workshop “Million Dollar Quartet,” a small musical that dramatizes an impromptu studio jam session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in 1956.

Its 2010 opening on Broadway heralded Mr. Kreis‘ talents in a performance that channeled the untamed gyrations of Jerry Lee Lewis at the keyboard and atop the piano. Winning the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical made the injuries he sustained on stage worthwhile.

“When the show opened on Broadway, the New York Times interviewed Jerry Lee and me in his hotel room,” Mr. Kreis said. “We went on stage together that night singing ‘A Whole Lot of Shaking.’ I’ll always cherish his remark afterward, ‘A lot of people try to play me, but you are the best.’

“Since then, I’ve had three ACL reconstructions,” he said, laughing. “Now ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ is testing my agility by getting me back into dancing shoes.”

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