BWW Interviews: Talking Up SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE at Arena Stage - Part 2

BWW Interviews: Talking Up SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE at Arena Stage - Part 2
(L to R) Nova Y. Payton, Levi Kreis and E. Faye Butler
(photo Tony Powell)

Part two of our interview with director Randy Johnson and choreographer Parker Esse of Arena Stage's SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE.

The toe-tapping musical retrospective highlighting the legacy of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Smokey Joe's Café is heating up the rehearsal rooms of Arena Stage preparing for an April 25 opening. The show's tunestack is packed with more than 40 Leiber and Stoller hit songs, including "Kansas City," "Poison Ivy," "Charlie Brown," I'm a Woman," "On Broadway," "Stand by Me," and the song that put Elvis on the map, "Hound Dog," just to name a few.

Nine performers will take the stage in Smokey Joe's Café when it runs April 25 through June 8 on the Fichlander Stage, including Arena Stage veteran E. Faye Butler (Oklahoma!, Pullman Porter Blues), and DC's own Nova Y. Payton (Signature Theatre's Hairspray and Dreamgirls), who are joined by Tony Award winner (Million Dollar Quartet) Levi Kreis. Other cast members include Jay Adriel, Austin Colby, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Michael J. Mainwaring, Stephawn P. Stephens, and Kara Tameika Watkins.

Smokey Joe's Café is directed by Randy Johnson, returning to the Mead Center for American Theater after bringing his production of One Night with Janis Joplin to Arena Stage last season, which lead to a run on Broadway. Serving as choreographer for the production is Parker Esse (Oklahoma! and The Music Man at Arena). Victor Simonson is the musical director.

During a break in rehearsals, the two men sat down with BroadwayWorld's Jeffrey Walker to talk about the show, the legacy of Leiber and Stoller's collaboration and putting their own stamp on a show that ran on Broadway for 2,036 performances.

For part one of Jeffrey Walker's interview with the director and choreographer, click HERE.

In part two, Randy Johnson and Parker Esse talk about more about their collaboration and the cast that will bring their vision of Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller to Arena Stage, April 25 through June 8, 2014.

JEFFREY WALKER: How was rehearsal today?

RANDY JOHNSON: Oh, it's great! These rehearsals are a joy, really. I mean, we've been rehearsing...

PARKER ESSE: This is week four and it's such a tight feeling.

RJ: We all really bonded from day one. I look forward to it every day.

JW: How is it staging this show for the Fichlander where the audience is on all four sides?

RJ: I do a lot of shows in sports arenas, so it's familiar to me, so I've worked in the round before. The fact of staging in an arena space is that wherever your sitting it's a different experience. It's such a fun venue to work with. And Parker knows it so well.

BWW Interviews: Talking Up SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE at Arena Stage - Part 2PE: In the arena setting, for the performers, you are always on, even in those wonderful background moments when they are supposed to be backup singers, they're not necessarily behind you, they're in the forefront. It's interesting to take those classic looks and then mix it up on our stage in the round.

JW: Any hints about what the design concept will be?

RJ: The direction I gave Caite Hevner Kemp, the scenic designer was that the music is the star. The band is in the center of the stage on an elevator so the basic scenic backdrop is the living band. The vomitoria [the walkways in each corner which serve as entrances and exits in the Fichlander] give support and give substance and texture to it. But it's about the music and the singers and that's what we've kept it to.

JW: You both mentioned how everyone bonded as a company early on. How has that helped your working relationship as director and choreographer?

PE: This is the first time we've worked together but it's like we've known each other for a long time. It's been an easy collaboration, because we're on the same page together.

RJ: In the way that my vision for the show can't just be my vision, it has to be collaborative, collective vision. That's not just with Parker and I, it means with the cast, the band, the musical director. We all contribute because you can't be your best if you are not allowing everybody else to be their best. And they bring their assets to the stage and you make the most out of it. We're working with nine individuals who have the potential to be stars and they bring their own unique essence to it so we're shaping with each performer the role, and how it fits into the song, and making the most of it.

PE: It's a great balance for each performer.

RJ: They are not used to working this way, so it's been liberating for them.

BWW Interviews: Talking Up SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE at Arena Stage - Part 2
RANDY JOHNSON (photo by Eric La Cour)

For the past 15 years, I've written and directed everything I've done, and now I'm going back to somebody else's work. We are not trying to recreate what another director's done; that's done, that should live. We now are taking what we're bringing to the table and make it live, so it's our statement and vision and not a recreation of what Jerry Zaks [Smokey Joe Cafe's original Broadway director] or someone else did.

PE: Same thing with styles of choreography, when you are given this amazing material, you go back and do the research on the styles of the times, the late fifties and early sixties. I develop a vocabulary inspired by it but I am not reproducing the steps verbatim; I put my own twist on those steps, yet it still feels like the flavor of style from that era which allows us to do our own show.

JW: How did you approach the songs that make up Smokey Joe's Café?

RJ: We let the songs speak and found the specificity of the songs. If you really listen carefully, the music and the lyrics tell you where to go. These lyrics are so smart and they are also deep. Leiber and Stoller were talking about things back in the fifties and sixties that people didn't dare talk about and they put it in such a nice way. They broke racial issues, they broke sexuality issues all in the guise of just rock and roll.

PE: I would listen to the songs and listen to the story; each one has its distinctive story. The music tells you exactly what to do. Then once you've done your homework and the research and dance styles, the steps just come. It's really about just trusting the story, that's how we envision what happens on the stage. The more we've focused on what's written and the relationship between the music and the performers, it all just kind of unfolds.

JW: And you have a crazy talented cast.

RJ: Crazy talented! It's remarkable that seven of them are local, based in DC, and they are extraordinary, like Nova Y. Payton. And then we have E. Faye and Levi, who are remarkable also. They all bring their own strength to it. Levi, Nova and E. Faye, they are sickly talented! And from day one, no one was intimidated by the others. Everyone appreciates each other's talents.

The thing about talent is that I believe everyone is remarkably talented. They just need to learn to believe in themselves. And in this process, everyone has brought everyone else up to be the best that they can be in this moment.

JW: Having seen Levi Kreis play Jerry Lee Lewis on Broadway in Million Dollar Quartet where he not only sang and acted, he also got to play piano, I wonder if he will get to do that in Smokey Joe's Café.

RJ: (smiling) It will be a surprise.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Tickets range from $50 to $99. There are many special packages and ticket offers. Click here for more information.

Go to for more information or call 202.488.3300. Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater is located at 1101 Sixth Street SW, WDC.

PHOTO CREDITS: Production Photos by Tony Powell. Parker Esse - Courtesy of Arena Stage. Randy Johnson - Photo by Eric La Cour

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Jeffrey Walker Jeffrey Walker is a former hometown newspaper man who now lives his life as a high school theatre teacher, husband and father. Currently he is a regular contributor to DC Theatre Scene and Broadway World's DC region, writing reviews and feature stories. He has recently added television coverage to his purview, as well. He will be one of the BWW-TV's new recappers for the current season.

A developing playwright, his play "Dracula: An Undead Romance" has been performed in two venues so far. He co-wrote "Fleet Street Horrors," inspired by the original penny dreadful account of Sweeney Todd. Jeffrey is also an experienced director and actor and has performed in musicals, Shakespeare, classics, operettas, and contemporary works. He is a graduate of Roanoke College.

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