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By Martha Ross

posted August 29, 2011

One of the fun things about working with an arts organization is that I get to go on amazing journeys of discovery. I can watch rehearsals for shows that are coming up at the Lesher Center for the Arts, talk to the directors and actors, and do research on the show’s history, cultural relevance, artistic impact.

Last week, I went to see a very high-stepping, heart-and-soul run-through for Smokey Joe’s Café, which Center Repertory Company, the resident theater group for the Lesher Center, is opening this coming Friday.

But I confess: before I went to the rehearsal, I knew very little the show, other than that it was a Tony Award-winning musical revue of 39 rock songs, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Stand By Me” written by the songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

With songs like these on their resume, Leiber and Stoller didn’t sound like slouches. Because I’m no expert on rock music history, I didn’t know anything beyond that. I didn’t realize how big of a deal they were until I clicked on the New York Times and BBC homepages early last week.

As it happens, I wasn’t looking up anything Smokey Joe’s-related. I was checking on events in Libya and the rest of the world. And there, below the latest news on the downfall of Quadafi and sniping amongst Washington politicians were stories about Leiber, Stoller, "Hound Dog" and Elvis Presley.

The stories were reporting sad news. Leiber had died on Aug. 22 at age 78.

I had one of those “where have I been” moments when I starting reading the obituaries and then found many more stirring eulogies populating news and culture sites.

Leiber was “rock ‘n’ roll’s first major wordsmith,” said the Wall Street Journal’s Mike Myers, who credited him with being “one of the most visionary and authentic lyricists” in U.S. music history. He and Stoller were leading figures of postwar popular culture, opined the Financial Times. They were rock ‘n’ roll, declared Time magazine’s Richard Corliss.

A blogger also linked to a YouTube world music version of the classic "Stand by Me," which Leiber and Stoller wrote with Ben E. King. It gets a gospel treatment in Center Rep's Smokey Joe's.

These writers described how Leiber and Stoller, coming along in the early 1950s, used their ear for R&B and urban youth culture to pen hit after hit. The two were from East Coast Jewish families who met as teenagers in Los Angeles and became enamored of the R&B music being performed by artists who left the South as part of the black migration.

The two became top players in the movement that brought the sounds of blues and gospel to mainstream audiences. Their songs were edgy, passionate, witty and tender and could be covered by a wide range of artists: Elvis Presley, the Drifters, the Coasters, Fats Domino, Peggy Lee, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones. The crossover appeal of their music can be seen in “Hound Dog’s” path to No. 1 on the Billboard’s pop singles chart. The two originally wrote it in 1952 for blues singer Big Mama Thornton, a woman of “girth and bossy demeanor.” Four years later, Elvis Presley covered it, making Leiber and Stoller the hottest songwriting team in rock ‘n’ roll, according to the New York Times. Apparently, Leiber and Stoller were not too fond of Presley’s more mainstream version, though they wrote many other songs for him and his movies, including “Jailhouse Rock."

You can hear both “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” in Center Rep’s Smokey Joe’s production—“Smokey Joe’s” is the title of another Leiber and Stoller hit. But Smokey Joe’s “Hound Dog,” definitely takes its queue from Big Mama Thornton.

In an interview with Walnut Creek Patch, director Robert Barry Fleming says his vibrant and talented cast, who can belt out songs and bust some serious grooves, try to capture that feeling of excitement and cultural revolution that occurred when African-American culture and musical styles took center stage in the 1950s and 1960s.

“That cultural experiment is what defines us as American,” Fleming said. “It brings wonderful tensions and the birth of rock and roll.”

For more information about Center Repertory Company's production of Smokey Joe's Café visit www.centerrep.org. For tickets, call the Lesher Center's box office at 925-943-7469 or visit www.lesherartscenter.org.

Martha Ross, the former editor of Walnut Creek Patch, now provides publicity for the Diablo Regional Arts Association and the Lesher Center for the Arts.


By Lou Fancher

posted August 29, 2011

There’s a collision ahead when Smokey Joe’s Café opens at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center on Friday, Sept. 2.

Robert Barry Fleming, the director for Center Rep, will be at the wheel, driving African-American culture and music from the 1950s and '60s to crash in a glorious crescendo of music and dance.

“That cultural experiment is what defines us as American,” Fleming says, in a phone interview on the cusp of opening night. “It brings wonderful tensions and the birth of rock and roll.”

With Tony Award-winning words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the production launches the action-packed musical revue with 39 greatest hits, like “Stand by Me”, “Spanish Harlem”, and “Love Potion #9”.

Fleming is leaving the song order much like the original production, but giving his version a stronger sense of 2011.

“The performers, the American Idol sense, innovations in movement and costuming are informed by a new sensibility,” he says. “I didn’t try to shy away from those anachronisms co-existing with the period of the '50s and '60s.”

The set, designed by Kelly James Tighe, captures a sense of place with an urban playground that is flexible; suggesting different locations instead of the Vegasy, concert feel of the original.

Fleming looked for young, vibrant performers while casting the show. Familiar with Bay Area actors after directing his Shellie Award-winning All Shook Up and earning the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for She Loves Me (both for Center Rep), he found actors who could work well as a group, but also take center stage and lead.

“I wanted them to bring their own sense of unique talent and the perspective of their world shining through. I needed a bass to hit low numbers and an evocative group of guys who suggest The Coasters,” he explains.

When a few last-minute replacements were necessary, Fleming admits, it was terrifying.

“We waited with bated breath, but we ended up with the cast that was meant to be,” he claims.

Fleming’s ability to go with the irregular flow of theater springs from meticulous planning, even before rehearsals begin.

“I start with a lot of research into the movement of the period. I had two pages of notes and references from the original substructure. I checked out everything about The Coasters, The Drifters, Elvis and others,” he recalls. “Due to our rehearsal time, it was clear I would not be able to do a lot of improvisation, so I came in with a lot of it choreographed.”

Looking for eternal influences that transcend time periods, Fleming chose “stepping” as a basic choreographic element. The percussive, footwork-intensive dance movement originated in the '50s, but is familiar to today’s Idol-savvy audiences.

“I like to ask questions: What would the shimmy be in contemporary street dance? You continually see how inventive people can be,” Fleming muses.

A background in film and a career that includes chairing the Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Department at the University of San Diego, Fleming says trusting simple movement and staging, while maintaining a “very active internal world,” is essential.

‘We don’t trust that simplicity so much in the theater, and there’s musical air between phrases that can drop if clarity of thought isn’t happening in those moments,” he insists.

Telling stories with visual language and centering the dancers as the primary engine, Fleming’s style harks back to his mentors: Michael Bennett and Gillian Lynne for choreography; Daniel Aukin, Jeff Calhoun and Liesl Tommy as directors.

As tech and preview week begin, Fleming is confident: relying on his cast, crew and — oh, yes — buckling his belt in anticipation of a magnificent impact.