On Theater: Rock reigns in 'Cafe'

Daily Pilot

Before there was rock 'n' roll, there was rhythm and blues, which set the stage in the early 1950s for the definitive music of a generation and ignited the careers of such performers as Elvis Presley, the Coasters and others.

Two prolific pioneers of that era were songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who created classics like "Kansas City," "On Broadway," "Yackety Yack," "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Spanish Harlem," "Little Egypt" and "Love Potion #9." They also wrote a lot more that you've probably never heard.

The Newport Theater Arts Center is offering these and others in a compendium, "Smokey Joe's Café," which is a Valhalla of sorts for anyone who grew up in the '50s.

Director Larry Watts, who also choreographed and helped design the costumes, has chosen eight performers with exceptional voices to conduct this time-traveling venture, and the results are supremely entertaining, particularly if you have a frame of reference for some of the material.

There's no narration, and precious little spoken interaction, in the show. It's packed with a plethora of Stoller-Leiber songs and the less said, the better. The punch comes in the manner of presentation.

Local theatergoers probably are familiar with the incendiary Adriana Sanchez. Well, match her with seven other singers who excel in showmanship and you've got yourself a real sizzler.

There's Ronald Holliday Hills, who furnishes the deep bass voice for some of the harmonic Coasters classics like "Yackety Yack" and "Charlie Brown." There's Candice M. Clasby who dances up a storm and brings down the house with the unfamiliar "Pearl's a Singer." There's Nickie Gentry, who shows us how to shimmy. And there's Kwanza Higgins, who turns her gospel-honed pipes loose on the joyous first-act curtain closer "Saved."

There also are three guys — Christopher Peduzzi, James Goodrich and Mark Phillips — who do yeoman duty in this entertaining exercise, backing up one another in the nostalgic group numbers. They're especially effective in such songs as "Searchin'," "Poison Ivy," "On Broadway," "Little Egypt" and "Love Potion #9."

Higgins belts out "Hound Dog," but it's not the version you'll remember from Elvis. She and Hills combine for a slyly suggestive, "You're the Boss," while Hills reaches his peak with "I (Who Have Nothing)."

The sultry Sanchez warms up the house in the first act playing a materialistic sexpot with her "Don Juan" solo. Then she pulls out all the stops with "Some Cats Know" in the second act, landing (all too briefly) in the lap of some fortunate male patron.

The energetic octet, under the musical direction of David Di Iorio, makes two and a quarter hours of theater fly by virtually in minutes. At the curtain call, you'll be yelling for more from "Smokey Joe's Café."

If You Go What: "Smokey Joe's Café"Where: Newport Theater Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport BeachWhen: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. until June 27Cost: $20Call: (949) 631-0288

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