Everybody Let's Rock

by Michael Bowen

It's as if Oldies 101 exploded onto a stage filled with lights, action, energy. Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater's Artistic Director Roger Welch notes that Smokey Joe's Cafe (through Aug. 3) "is the longest running musical revue ever on Broadway. It's one great song after another."

Welch is exuberant not only about the show, but about the man he's selected to run it: "Bob Sembiante, who's our director, spent six months as a stage manager for a production of Smokey Joe in Connecticut, that was so successful they cancelled the next show and extended the run."

Sembiante, who's returning for his fifth season with the Carrousel Players, has directed narrative musicals (The Music Man, Grease) in previous years. We know that Smokey Joe demonstrates that oldies are golden and not molderin', but does this collection of '50s songs have any kind of structure? Sembiante laughs and says, "Yeah, there's something like 41 or 42 songs. It follows a group of people, looking back at significant moments in their lives, and you watch them grow. You see them during their teenage years, and they go to dances; then they're more adult, and some of them fall in love."

Welch points out that "the singers are very iconic: There's a guy like Elvis, a quartet like the Temptations, an Aretha Franklin-type. And these songs are such classics -- I mean, who doesn't know 'Love Potion No. 9'?"

The Smokey songs were composed, in whole or in part, by the songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who essentially were in at rock 'n' roll's creation. They wrote "Hound Dog" for Big Mama Thornton three years before Elvis made it a hit. Within a decade, they had written "Jailhouse Rock," "Yakety Yak" and "Stand by Me," among many others.

Their tunes and lyrics are likely to be well served in this CdA production. Audiences will welcome seeing in Smokey Joe's cast the talents of Taryn Darr, Kelly Moore and Frank Jewett -- Roxie, Velma and Amos, respectively -- from the recent production of Chicago.

The Cafe ensemble also features CdA resident and Whitworth grad Steve Booth, Miss Lee Lee (who goes back locally to Ain't Misbehavin' at the Civic in 1994), Thara Cooper (so good as the Witch in last season's Into the Woods), Harry Turpin (a Seattle actor and choreographer) and Bertram Johnson (from both the Intiman Theater and the Seattle Rep). Equity actor Darr is joined by another member of the professional actors' guild, David Jackson, whose credits include the original Broadway and London casts of Grand Hotel, along with three movies: Saturday Night Fever, The Wiz and The Cotton Club.

"Every single one of the nine performers has a showcase piece," Sembiante says. "There's really no lead performer."

Now, all of us have done some bedroom hip-swiveling while attempting to wail like a "Hound Dog."(Haven't we?) But what about the lesser-known tunes in Smokey Joe's Cafe?

"Of course there are the big Elvis tunes," says Sembiante. "But there are a couple of ballads -- two very steamy, sultry ballads, 'Don Juan' and 'Some Cats Know.'"

And early in Act One, there's a passionate duet called 'Trouble,'" Sembiante says, "and I think the men will really enjoy it, because it gets pretty hot when [two women] come out in leotards and fishnet stockings."

Turning up the erotic thermostat like this can't be easy, when the entire process of choreographing the show begins in the abstract, with one man alone in a room. For Sembiante, designing dance is an enjoyable experiment: "I move around a lot in my apartment, and I make up little diagrams full of arrows and X's and O's. I Xerox the floor plan, I draw pictures, I draw lines next to the lyrics, I use initials for everyone in the cast. I just try to get the general shape of a number down on paper."

All without any excessive hip-swiveling.

The cast, however, is surely getting a workout. Just eight days before opening night, Sembiante reports, "the cast knows half the show. We started with three days -- Saturday, Sunday, Monday -- just teaching them the music. Then on Tuesday, we staged 14 numbers and choreographed them -- fortunately, this cast is great at remembering stuff. We'll have the whole show taught [in two more days], down to the last beat.

All that work on the actors' part translates into a whole lot of fun for audiences. Sembiante sums up the appeal of Smokey Joe's Cafe this way: "If you're out on a summer night and you want to have a good time, this is definitely the kind of show you want to see. It's a great date show -- a great night for couples to go out together, have a good time and listen to all the great music that we all grew up on."

Publication date: 07/24/03