"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Jukebox musicals — the theatrical genre that's built on the rock and pop hits of the past — have been around long enough that a pattern has emerged. The creative forces behind each show usually take one of two paths — they either concoct a storyline that ties hit songs together, or they simply present the hits together with nothing more than a presentational sheen. "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the exceedingly popular, Tony-nominated jukebox musical featuring the memorable tunes of the songwriting pair Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, falls in the latter category; it's more akin to a concert than an old-fashioned, dialogue-fortified musical.
The 39 songs that comprise the show are a solid chunk of '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll with "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Charlie Brown," "On Broadway" and "Stand By Me" as some of the highlights. Leiber and Stoller's material ended up on the glittery resumes of black and white stars from Elvis to The Coasters to Peggy Lee.
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre is bringing back "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and its nostalgic good time due to multiple requests from patrons. The Rep's fresh-faced cast — nine in all — are mostly musical theater babies though Alltrinna Grayson has credits that reach into the worlds of Broadway and pop music. Grayson has performed with Patti Labelle, Teddy Pendergrass and Natalie Cole and is featured on Bobby Womack's hit "No Matter How High I Get."
The Rep's young singers say performance is at the heart of their rendition of this jukebox show even as there's no overt storyline.
"For the audience it will feel kind of concert-ish but for us it will feel like the theater because we have to bring out the emotion in the material," says Matthew Ragas. "As actors, we are still playing these songs."
Ragas also feels that the powerful memories generated by Leiber and Stoller's music will do the work of a traditional plot.
"I think the audience has their own story with this music," he notes.
Eric LaJuan Summers finds himself in Arkansas after recently completing a stint in "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. He even received a glowing notice in the New York Times for his performance.
"My music teacher said whether you want to be an actor or not, if you're a musician, you're an actor," says Summers. "You know most people who sing, they are giving you a feeling and a story. Hopefully the audience for ['Smokey Joe's Cafe'] will get the fun of a concert but the feeling of a heartfelt play."
The Rep's cast agrees that while Leiber and Stoller's songs are cherished totems for an older generation the melodies and lyrics aren't so unfamiliar. Classic rock stations haven't gone anywhere. Elvis is long dead but still lives through the airwaves.
"I grew up to this music," says Ragas. "This is music my mother cleaned the house to."
"Smokey Joe's Cafe"
Arkansas Repertory Theatre
June 4-27, $20-$50
7 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday