A moment in the second act of the Pasadena Playhouse’s revival of “Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller” took me back to my teenaged years, when my brother strictly forbade me to sing any song he liked. Merely hearing a song in my voice, with its corny musical-theater inflection, could drain all the coolness out of it for him.
For the entire first act of this musical revue, which ran on Broadway from 1995 to 2000, I was happily tapping my toes to songs both deeply familiar (“Kansas City,” “Poison Ivy,” “On Broadway”) and new to me (“Shopping for Clothes”) by lifetime songwriting partners Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who met as teenagers in 1950 and immediately began establishing the frisky sensibility and R&;;B-tinged sound of early rock ‘n’ roll.
“Smokey Joe’s” doesn’t try to fit its 39 songs into a plot, or dilute them with dialogue, and to my surprise I didn’t wish for a more defined narrative structure. Each song is a juicy little vignette, and just wondering what the nine personable, silky-voiced cast members would do next provided all the momentum I needed.
If Jeffrey Polk’s direction and choreography came off as cutesy or warmed-over from time to time—well, you don’t go to a musical revue for raw-edged authenticity. I loved Kyra Little Da Costa’s sultry rapport with the audience in “Don Juan,” and the gospel-inspired “D.W. Washburn” and “Saved,” which I’d never heard, sent me into intermission in an upbeat humor.
Then came the second act. The band had moved from the orchestra pit to the stage, the cast had changed into black-tie. They were enthusiastically chorusing “Baby That Is Rock &;; Roll,” playing air-sax and air-guitar, when I suddenly heard my brother’s voice in my head: “It is?”
When they segued into “Charlie Brown,” with the very tall bass-voiced Michael A. Shepperd donning a propeller beanie and demanding, “Why’s everybody always pickin on me?” — well, we were heading a little too deep into squaresville even for me.
Carly Thomas Smith moved things in a better direction when she infused the aching ballad “Pearl’s a Singer” with genuine pathos, and better still was Monique L. Midgette’s delicious “Hound Dog” (the “Big Mama” Thornton version) and her roof-rattling rendition, with the other three women, of “I’m a Woman.”
But my spirits took a nose dive with “Jailhouse Rock,” performed by Robert Neary in disheartening Elvis drag, and not even Thomas Hobson’s heartthrobby “Spanish Harlem,” LaVance Colley’s soaring “I (Who Have Nothing)” or a stirring group “Stand by Me” could entirely restore them.
Rock songs, especially those associated with a certain artist, just don’t fare as well in this karaoke format as the timeless bluesy ones. Luckily, Leiber and Stoller wrote plenty of those too, so everybody (even really cool people like my brother) should find something to enjoy in this candy box of a show.
“Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 13. $45-$125. (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun