What a thrill! The other night I was a member of the first-ever audience in Open Door Repertory Company’s wonderful new theater at 902 S. Ridgeland Ave. It’s their first permanent home after 12 years of providing the community with memorable theater experiences.
Many no doubt recall the troupe used to perform on the stage of the Hatch School auditorium, 20 blocks north on Ridgeland. Each weekend during the run of their shows they had to take down their entire set so it would not be in the way of school activities during the coming week.
Long story short, Open Door looked at 15 sites before finally choosing an abandoned convenience store just north of the Blue Line el and the Eisenhower Expressway, several doors south of Harrison Street on the west end of the Arts District.
Alas, this space was far from “move-in condition.” There were countless obstacles to be dealt with, such as the fact that the site had once been a gas station in the 1940s, so major environmental clean-up needed from contamination and leakage in the rubble.
Fast forward 15 difficult months: the new Open Door Repertory Theatre was designed by local architect Errol Kirsch, and the new digs are truly impressive, with 70-some seats in the spacious, raked auditorium. The new theater seats are comfy, by the way, with spacious aisles and great sight-lines. (One of my only gripes about watching shows in the old Hatch Auditorium was that the seats were designed for children’s bodies 80 years ago.)
Open Door’s first show is one that enjoyed success a few seasons back: Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a joyful musical revue showcasing about 40 songs from the ’50s and ’60s by the song-writing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoler. These two created some of the best-known hits of the mid-century period.
This delightful musical time machine to the golden era of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues is performed by an all-new cast, young and enormously talented. If you’re in the Boomer zone, age-wise, or even if you’re not, there are loads of energetic and sentimental chart-topping hits that are both familiar and fun. Leiber and Stoler apparently wrote for everyone from the Coasters to the Drifters, from Peggy Lee to Frank Sinatra. The songs range from “Yakety Yak” and “Poison Ivy” to “Kansas City” and “Stand By Me.” The show is full of “I didn’t know they wrote that!” moments.
This revue reminds me of the breezy, feel-good TV variety shows of the ’60s. Well-paced by director McKinley Johnson, who also did the lively choreography that complements the rock ‘n’ roll score, the revue achieves a buoyant feel with a minimum of props and set. The seven-person cast brings style and flair to their renditions of this vast catalog of songs. The energy never flags.
Each of the members of this triple-threat cast sings complex harmonies, moves well, and dances in sync with the others. Everyone has a good singing voice.
There are no spoken lines. There is no chronology or background biography. Since there’s no story or plot, the songs are not linked. But just because these songs are all former pop hits doesn’t make “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” an easy-to-produce no-brainer. For the production to succeed, there must be outstanding performers, strong direction, and a great band. In solo or in unison, this cast rocks. And everyone gets a chance to shine.
Each song is interpreted as a unique little story, a small vignette with specific characters. Among the many high points:
Mario Mazzetti doing a jitterbug “Jailhouse Rock,” with back-up support by the cast, and his “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” with Renisha Jenkins assisting in a fringy ’60s-style go-go outfit. Mazzetti is also great as the title drunk in “D.W. Washburn.”
Christine Mayland Perkins giving a beautiful bluesy rendition of the sad country ballad “Pearl’s A Singer.”
The three guys — Mazzetti, Rudy Foster, and Nelson Green II — wowing the joint with their doo-wop “On Broadway,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “Love Potion #9.”
This show, a huge hit in 1995-1996, became Broadway’s longest-running musical revue ever (2,036 performances), and received five Tony Award nominations. But probably since there’s no unifying dialogue or theme — it’s nearly two hours of non-stop singing and dancing — the bookless show garnered few votes and actually received no Tonys.
Songs run the gamut of mid-20th Century music, from the close harmony of doo-wop to rhythm & blues, gospel, Motown, bubble-gum rock, country/western, and romantic ballads.
The live but unseen band does a fine job with the variety and nonstop fast pace of this revue. Musical director Tammy O’Reilly controls the keyboard, Clayton Bail plays tenor sax, Joseph Davis III pounds the percussion, Jaime Martinez bows the bass, and Kenn Smith governs the guitar.
Mara Krizek is stage manager. Paul Kerwin designed the lighting.
Perhaps it’s just the old school teacher in me, ever restless to grab a “teachable moment,” but there is no explication about just who Leiber and Stoler were. Nor is there any notation in the program to tell us anything about this dynamic duo of early rock. Such prolific songwriters, who are far from well known, arouse our curiosity.
I don’t even know if they’re still with us.