Black musical standards shine in ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’

Submitted photo

“They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. They say there’s always magic in the air.” 

If you’ve already put music to these lyrics, you may be familiar with the version of “On Broadway” made popular in the 1960s by the Drifters or the rendition that captivated a new generation earlier this decade thanks to Jennifer Hudson’s performance in the NBC hit TV series “Smash.”  

This hit song is one of many favorites written by white writing partners Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who helped legendary black artists top the charts through the decades. More than three dozen classic hits created by the dynamic duo come alive during the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ original performance of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller,” running now through September 22.

The Leiber & Stoller songwriting team was behind a multitude of soul, blues and rock and roll hits for a “who’s who” of African American singers. A younger generation may not know the names, but most will likely recognize a melody or two.

Leiber & Stoller standards include “Stand By Me” sung by Ben E. King, “Love Potion #9” by The Clovers, “There Goes My Baby” by The Drifters, “Yakety Yak” (Don’t talk back!) by The Coasters, “Charlie Brown” (He’s a Clown) by The Coasters, “Kansas City” (Here I Come) by Little Willie Littlefield, and “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton. Thorton sung the original version moons before Elvis. Her recording is listed as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”

The predominantly African American, hip-thrusting, R&B-bellowing nine-member cast of “Smokey Joe’s Café” are mostly locals. The cast hailing from the Twin cities includes China Brickley, Kevin Brown, Jr., Kendall Debose, Rajané Katurah and Dwight Leslie. The troupe is led by New York-trained dance captain Shavey Brown, who performed in the off-Broadway version.

“The performers blew me away — I didn’t know what to expect,” says Florence Kimmel who attended a well-packed show during opening week. She highly recommends others see it. “It was like going back in time. It was traditional R&B meets Motown. It was authentic. It was raw talent. Rajané stole the show at the end. Everyone was standing up and jumping out of their seats. It was amazing.”

Submitted photo Dwight Leslie, Shavey Brown, Rendell DeBose, and Kevin Brown Jr.

Brown, Jr., a Twin Cities native who humorously portrays one of the swaggering do-woppers, says he learned a lot training with Shavey Brown and assistant choreographer Alison Solomon, as well as choreographer Josh Bergasse, who directed choreography for the off-Broadway revival and the TV show “Smash.” 

“Dance has been my weakness of the three big skills,” said Brown, who also pursued a musical theater major at the University of Miami. “With Josh being the choreographer, I really learned to be sharp in my movements and how to be energized while standing still.”

“We have amazing choreography in this show and a talented cast,” chimes Rod Kaats, the Ordway’s new producing artistic director who took the job in February 2018 after about 30 years producing and directing shows on Broadway, across the country and internationally. 

His vision for the season and going forward is to produce diverse shows with a diverse cast so that the Ordway is “a theater where everyone feels welcome and where we reflect stories that look more like America.” 

Entering the revised Ordway, the neon lights are bright and there’s magical music in the air. The Sanford Moore-led Smokey Joe’s band is phenomenal. They reach a kinetic energy while performing “Dueling Pianos.” Guitarist Geoff LeCrone’s “Spanish Harlem” is understated and sensual. And, during several numbers, bassist Jay Young emanates cool smoothness. Often performing right on stage, interacting with the actors or on a sliding platform, the band is key to bringing the show alive, buttressing that authenticity Kimmel expressed about this modern, but jazzy lounge-backdropped performance.

Fans of the riveting songs can shimmy over to the Ordway to check out this rendition of the Grammy Award-winning, Tony Award-nominated “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”

Buy tickets online at starting at $30. Remaining performances are at 2 pm and 7:30 pm on weekends and 7:30 pm weekday nights through September 22, 2019.