When songwriter Jerry Leiber was growing up in Baltimore, he heard some of the sounds that eventually worked their way into the hit songs he wrote with Mike Stoller in the 1950s and 1960s. Now those sounds are on stage at the Lyric Opera House, where "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is bringing audiences to their feet in a return Baltimore engagement.
On opening night, the show's star, Gladys Knight, had audience members standing well before the curtain call, thanks to her high-powered rendition of "I (Who Have Nothing)." Alone on stage in a black evening gown, Knight sells this romantic plea for every heart-wringing note it's worth.
Although this number is the peak of the evening, the touring revue, which retains Jerry Zaks' Broadway direction and Joey McKneely's choreography, also has many fun-filled moments. These are heightened by the frequently clever juxtaposition of numbers.
Consider the pairing of "Treat Me Nice" and "Hound Dog." The former is sung with Elvis Presley-tinged pizazz by Michael B. Hammond. Kathleen Murphy subsequently wastes no time giving him what for as she belts out "Hound Dog." When she's through, the once-strutting Hammond has not only lost his top-dog attitude, he's cowering like a whipped dog.
Hammond is a versatile performer who also plays a nebbishy derelict in "D.W. Washburn" as well as a shopper whose eyes are bigger than his wallet in "Shoppin' for Clothes" (in which he is enticed by a trio of over-sized men's suits that suddenly come to life). In addition, Murphy delivers rafter-raising renditions of "Fools Fall in Love" and "Saved."
Another amusing juxtaposition comes after Knight leads three female performers in a spirited "I'm a Woman." No sooner have the women exited the stage than the cast's five dejected men lament "There Goes My Baby."
Knight's brother, Bubba, who was one of the Pips, brings tenderness and elegance to "Loving You" and "Spanish Harlem."
Particular mention also should be made of Neil I.B. Taffe, who enhances the entire ensemble with his floor-rumbling bass and shines in solo parts in such songs as "Little Egypt" and "Love Potion #9."
One of the production's rare disappointments is "Pearl's a Singer." Though Jessica Palmer's attempt to summon up the spirit of Janis Joplin captures the late singer's penchant for screaming, she lacks the diva's style.
However, the rollicking nature of "Smokey Joe's" won't leave you disappointed for long, and the seven-member band displays solid musicianship, though at times it overpowers the lyrics.
Hearing the songs of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Leiber and Stoller performed by Hall of Famers Gladys and Bubba Knight is more than a kick. As the song title puts it: "That is Rock & Roll."
'Smokey Joe's Cafe'
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. tonight, Friday; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sunday