February 26, 2012 REVIEW: ‘Smoky Joe’s Cafe’ at Derby Dinner Playhouse Let the music take you back in time BY CHARLES WHALEY Local Columnist
CLARKSVILLE — How fabulous it would be if every neighborhood sported a cozy, companionable joint much like Derby Dinner Playhouse’s “Smokey Joe’s Café,” the (Jerry) Leiber and (Mike) Stoller songbook celebration now on the Clarksville stage.
It’s a place where nostalgia jostles with good times, hard-driving romance, male-female contretemps, sexy dancing, and dynamic takes on more than 30 songs by a multi-talented cast of nine.
There’s no story line or dialogue, just song-after-terrifically-sold song on Lee Buckholz’s handsome streetscape set dotted with lamposts and benches. Associate producer Buckholz’s direction keeps things moving at top speed with Heather Paige Folsom’s vigorous choreography and Sharon Murray Harrah’s spot-on costumes ramping up the enjoyment.
And what a song list it is of early rock ‘n’ roll from the ‘50s and ‘60s immortalized by such as Elvis Presley, Dion, the Coasters and the Drifters.
“On Broadway,” that 1963 Drifters hit (Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill were collaborators) brought forth an appreciative howl of recognition as spiffy Alonzo Richmond, Lem Jackson, Christian Bradford and Lamont O’Neal, dressed in black and white and wearing shades, resurrected the era as they tapped, blended voices and postured.
Then there was force-of-nature Willie Illeana Kirven blasting out “Hound Dog” as a latter-day Big Mama Thornton, shoving aside thoughts of Elvis. “The Pelvis,” however, got a masterful “Jailhouse Rock” tribute from Matthew Chappell and company. Chappell also soared in an impassioned “I Who Have Nothing.”
Slinky, leggy Brooke Aston, trailing a mile-long red feather boa, was electrifying in “Don Juan,” matter-of-factly telling her man who’d lost his fortune that “when your money’s gone, your baby’s gone.” And she knocked out of the ballpark the cheekily erotic “Some Cats Know.”
“Dance With Me (and we’ll be lovers when the music ends)” switched gears hilariously when determined Willie Illeana Kirven went after guys scared to death that she’d get them.
The four women did booming right by “I’m a Woman,” their feminist manifesto, and the whole company, led by Alonzo Richmond, brought the festivities toward a close with a heartfelt “Stand By Me.”
It was a nice touch when musical director Scott Bradley from his piano bench sang a soulful “Stay a While.” His splendid fellow musicians in the show produced by Bekki Jo Schneider were Darryel Cotton (drums), Mark McCulloch (bass), Jim Schweickart (guitar), and Tim Whalen (saxophone).
“Smokey Joe’s Café” runs through April 1. For tickets and information call 812-288-8281, toll free 877-898-8577, or www.derbydinner.com.
I have often said that one of the most difficult parts of being an actor is that you are constantly unemployed. From the moment you book a job the knowledge that the show will close and you will be sent back to the daunting task of hawking your time, talent, and passion for the arts to a group of people who hope you will solve their casting dilemma but say no 100 times more often than they say yes is the nerve-wracking reality. I recently told a dear friend that the worst part about an “in-house” audition is that your competition isn’t the other women auditioning for the part, your competition is the casting authority’s imagination. Now fast forward and you’ve booked a job and are on the eve of your first rehearsal. If this is your first time working for your new employer than they are expecting great things based on what totals about three hours of time spent with them in auditions, and if you are returning to a company then you have to live up to the expectations that they have created in their own mind about what it is that you can do. Three weeks ago, the pre rehearsal jitters had taken hold the day before I was to go into rehearsals for Smokey Joe’s Café at The Derby Dinner Playhouse. It is one of my favorite companies to work for, but after spending last year being on tour for 5 months, working and training for a summer in New York, and then heading home for 5 weeks to help my Mother recover from knee replacement surgery the reality that I hadn’t been in rehearsal for a musical in over a year had me a little shaken.
Fortunately, after a lot of years working in the theater it seems that rehearsing for a show is a little bit like riding a bike. Things seem tenuous at first, but eventually you just put your feet on the pedals and go, go, go. The process of putting on a musical is not quite as glamorous as it looks on TV, and there is an adjustment period while each individual’s creative process influences the entire creative process. In our case, the recently redecorated hotel ballroom that we called our rehearsal hall had been covered in dark brown wallpaper, barely there lighting, and the ceiling was caving in from a recent leak. In any case, an off-handed remark is taken the wrong way by this person, another person seems to be catching on a little bit faster or slower than everyone else, a dance routine seems like it will never be executable in a clean and precise way, and everyone is just trying to find their way. All of that doesn’t even include everyone’s personal lives which inevitably encroach on what is happening in that rehearsal room. Eventually, all of those things converge into an understanding between the creative team and the actors, and after a few days everyone knows where they are supposed to stand and what they are supposed to say. For us it was no different.
After about a week in rehearsal we were humming, not to mention singing and dancing, along. We had established a language and referred to different parts of the stage with clever nicknames like, “the tongue, the uvula, and the doughnut”. The dances were detailed and difficult but the bosses were not only confident, they were supportive. Things were starting to stick and everyone was getting along as well as you would expect 14 individuals with strong personalities thrust into this situation would. Then little things started to creep in. I have an old neck injury that is irritated by repetitive movement which I had completely forgotten about until we learned the hair flying choreo for Jailhouse Rock. The next morning, I couldn’t turn my head to the left. Our youngest cast member came down with Bell’s Palsey that has paralyzed one side of his face for an indefinite period of time. Then the artistic team had to make the tough decision to let one of our cast members go and replace him with a member of the core company. The issues were largely personal so I won’t divulge them, but the challenge of incorporating a new cast member fell on each and every one of us. Fortunately, the replacement is so competent and capable that we only lost about one day of rehearsal in order to put him into his “track”, and all of us were able to use that time for some much needed review and solidification of what we had learned up to that point. In order to re-choreograph the very number that so offended my neck injury and to do some polishing, we had to revoke one of our two precious days off in the 18 days that lead up to opening night. That’s right- we had one day off in 18 days, and to my cast’s credit no one complained.
As we went into tech, things went back to normal. The inexplicable confidence started to take hold that only comes when you feel like a show is really settling into your bones. The boa and hats that had been ordered weeks in advance finally appeared the day we previewed the show. Did I forget to mention that the 18 foot long prop that I use in an extremely intricate way didn’t arrive until the same day we had our first paying audience? I must have blocked that out. I took a chunk out of my shin and another cast member tripped going up the stairs and went flying into a guard rail, but, you know, that sort of thing is just another day at the office for us theater folk! Finally we headed into preview, and as we like to say “no one died!”. The next day we spent another 5 hours in rehearsal once again polishing what we had accomplished so far so that our show would really “shine like the top of the Chrysler building” (a metaphor and a quote from Annie…too much?). I came home and commenced my afternoon routine of food, Facebook, backstage, and email and discovered that a patron from the night before had visited this very blog, created a fake email account, and sent me a hateful letter that said that while they liked me in the show they thought that I should be ashamed of what they had found about me on the internet. My first hate mail! It was pretty hurtful, especially when you consider that what I believe was the offending blog was all about overcoming a pretty dark time that I had last summer. On the other hand, I never said I was an angel, I promised my two biggest fans, my mother and my godmother, to give an honest account of my triumphs and struggles as an actor, and the patron/hater was too much of a coward to use their real email address. In Smokey Joe’s Café, I sing a song about being nothing but “Trouble” then later extol the virtues of “Cats who know how to make the honey flow”, what on earth did they read that was more shocking than my performance? At least they liked me in the show.
Tonight I say with more than a little pride that we open Smokey Joe’s Café at The Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, IN just across the bridge from Louisville, KY. I am honored to be working for such a fantastic artistic team, thrilled to be working with such a talented cast, and proud to be one of the “regulars” who gets hired again and again by this incredible company. MUSICALS ARE HARD! but there is nothing better than when a musical comes together and you are in it! Here’s to the next six weeks! (Oh god! Then what?!)
Since the age of sixteen my adventures in musical theater have taken me all over the country. For the next six months I will be coast hopping between New York and LA. Here are my stories.