KPBS AIRDATE: July 18, 2003
There are classic musicals and there are music classics. No one would consider “Smokey Joe’s Café” a classic musical, but this revue, now playing up in Vista at Moonlight Stage Productions, features a dance-happy nostalgia-trip of early rock ‘n’ roll songs. There’s no story, just an impressive playlist of nearly 40 tunes penned by the prolific, groundbreaking, Grammy-winning duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. There are some bona fide greats here, like “On Broadway,” “Stand by Me,” “Spanish Harlem” and “I’m a Woman.” And then there are the novelty songs, “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak” and “Love Potion #9.” Director/choreographer Paul David Bryant, who did knockout work last summer on “Ragtime,” is putting himself and eight other talented triple-threats through their paces for a high-octane evening that shakes the roof for a time, but wears out its welcome after awhile. Still, there are some killer solos and great group numbers. Each performer gets to strut his or her stuff, but the showstoppers are Eric Anderson’s Elvis-channeling “Jailhouse Rock,” Vonetta Mixson’s “Hound Dog,” Charna Felthous’ mile-a-minute moves in “Teach Me How to Shimmy” and Shirley Giltner’s two ultra-sexy, boa-slinging sultry songs, “Don Juan” and “Some Cats Know.” Don LeMaster heads up a socko 7-piece band, and the park setting couldn’t be sweeter. Bring a bottle of wine, picnic or dance on the grass, and take a stroll back to a simpler time, when a love potion made you kiss a cop and only fools fell in love.
If you’re tempted to sing along with “Smokey Joe,” you may know every note of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a classic musical by any definition. On the other hand, as its central character would say, it seemed that many in Starlight’s 57th-season audience were “Fiddler” virgins, and what a thought-provoking, tear-jerking, satisfying experience it was for them. The timeless tuner, based on an 1894 story by renowned Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, concerns the impoverished dairyman Tevye, his five daughters and their fictional Russian village of Anatevka. The 1964 songs, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, have entered our collective consciousness, from “Tradition” to “L’Chaim” to that wedding perennial, “Sunrise, Sunset.” The story still resonates, musically and thematically; all immigrants struggle with the need to embrace change and maintain tradition. Jeannette Thomas deftly directs a massive and competent cast of 60, backed by a stirring 16-piece orchestra. With a commanding and comical Tevye like Stephen Reynolds at its center, the show still has the power to move, inspire and inform. And that’s classic.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.