BWW Interview: Joshua Bergasse of SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE at Ordway Center For Performing Arts
The Ordway Center for Performing Arts in Saint Paul is bringing some major talent to their music theatre stage in the coming season (Hello, Sting!) while continuing to feature Twin Cities artists in their productions. SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE opens tonight (Sept. 10, 2019) and while you'll see a lot of familiar faces performing the hits of Leiber & Stoller, behind it all is director and choreographer Josh Bergasse.
SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller is a Grammy Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated smash that features 40 of the greatest songs of the past century, including classics like "On Broadway," "Stand by Me," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Love Potion No. 9."
Bergasse somehow found time to do a master dance class with locals (a treat for anyone who could make this Monday night event; Bergasse is a master teacher and has been a member of the Broadway Dance Center (BDC) faculty since 1998) and to do this interview all before opening night. Read on to learn more about this show, its director and for those SMASH fans among us, some really, really good news.
We're seeing a lot of "reimagined" musical revivals these days -- can you talk about what makes this version of SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE reimagined and what audiences can expect?
I know that the Ordway just did a reimagined version of 42nd STREET, choreographed by my friend, the VERY talented Jared Grimes. He calls it "142nd STREET!" But I don't know that this SMOKEY JOES CAFE is reimagined so much as it's re-formatted for the performers in the production. The original Broadway production was brilliant, and had a stellar cast. There's no way to replicate that. So instead, we cast new performers who are brilliant in their own ways, and restructured the show to their talents. That's what we did for the off-Broadway production in New York last year, and that's what we're doing here in the Twin Cities.
This production is coming soon after your off-Broadway run. What brings you to Saint Paul and the Ordway for the first time? How did you get involved in this show?
Rod Kaats, the Producing Artistic Director here at the Ordway, saw the production in New York and I guess he really liked it! So he invited us out to Saint Paul to do a version here at the Ordway. It's so exciting to revisit this material with a new cast. I was brought on to the show by John Rando, the original director in the beginning creative stages in New York a few years ago. When John was unavailable to continue with the show, the New York producers asked if I would continue on as director/choreographer, and I did so with John's blessing and guidance.
A number of the cast members are locals or have performed at the Ordway previously; what are your impressions of working with this group of actors getting ready for SMOKEY JOE'S?
Ten of the eleven cast members are from the Twin Cities. I came here last December for casting, and I was blown away by the talent pool. It's been absolutely incredible to work with them, and I'm sure you'll see them on Broadway or in Hollywood soon! Each one is a star waiting to be discovered. Of course, when they are discovered, I'll say I found them first!
What is your personal favorite Leiber & Stoller tune?
My favorite Leiber & Stoller tune...that's a tough one. As I sit through rehearsals, I find myself saying "this song is so good" after every song. But, I think in the end it has to be "Stand By Me." I honestly think it has the power to change the world!
What's your favorite number in this production and why?
I think my favorite number in this production is "Pearl's a Singer." I didn't like the song before; it didn't really make sense to me. But, when we were in rehearsals in New York, Mike Stoller told us the story of how the famous recording by Elkie Brooks was not at all what he intended the song to be. So we changed the arrangement for our production to match what they originally wrote. It's really moving to me now, and often brings me to tears.
Your resume is an impressive one. Can you talk about one of your favorite projects to date -- what was it, and what made it special?
Oh gosh! They're all my favorites! How can you pick your favorite child? I recently directed and choreographed the City Center Encores! production of I MARRIED AN ANGEL starring my wife Sara Mearns as the Angel. That was certainly a highlight of my career and a terrific collaboration!
I'll admit it here & now: I am a SMASH fan who loved everything about that show and wish it could've run forever. Can you talk a little about the experience of working on a modern-day musical on serialized TV with such an amazing cast and team?
Well SMASH was just an extraordinary experience. The talent, the resources...I wish it could've run forever, too! It was like Disneyland for a musical theater choreographer. Working with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Michael Mayer, Theresa Rebeck, etc.... and that's just the creative side!! Megan Hilty, Kat McPhee, Christian Borle... I mean... does it get better?!?! (Editor's note: No, it does not!) Now don't get me wrong, it was intense! The pressure was on and the days were very long, but when you're working with talent like that, it pushes you to be the best you can be.
Do you think we'll ever see a full staging of SMASH's BOMBSHELL?
You didn't hear it from me, but there are people who are trying to make that happen.
I'll keep it between us here! If the Ordway or the Twin Cities could woo you back for another show, what musical would you most like to stage here in the future?
Ooh... good question! Maybe something original to the Twin Cities? It would be fun to research the settling of this area and see if there's a story there that we could turn into a new musical, right?!
Sounds like a great idea - I'd see it! What have you done or seen in the Twin Cities during your stay here? Any favorite spots so far?
Sadly I haven't seen much because I've been so busy with the show. But I did see something on the river today that was so bizarre and not like anything I've seen before - I think it's called The Flugtag Festival??? That was crazy!
(Editor's note: That was the Red Bull Flugtag on Sept. 8.)
Josh Bergasse's bio:
He is the Emmy Award-winning choreographer for NBC's musical drama SMASH, and received a Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics nomination as well as the Astaire Award for his choreography of ON THE TOWN on Broadway. He also choreographed the new musical CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY on Broadway, which is currently touring the United States and Australia, directed by Jack O'Brien and produced by Warner Bros, as well as GIGI on Broadway.
Josh directed and choreographed the New York premiere of the re-imagined production of SMOKEY JOE'S CAFÉ. He also directed and choreographed I MARRIED AN ANGEL at NYC Center Encores! He also choreographed SWEET CHARITY starring Sutton Foster and won the prestigious Chita Rivera AWARD for excellence in choreography. Josh has also choreographed a variety of musicals, including the premiere of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at The Old Globe; THE HONEYMOONERS at Papermill Playhouse; the Off-Broadway production of "Bomb-Itty of Errors"; the national and international tours of "Fame the Musical"; "West Side Story" at the Stratford Festival, Barrington Stage Company, Fulton Theatre and North Carolina Theatre; "The Royal Family of Broadway", "Guys and Dolls," "Carousel," "The World Goes Round," "Pirates of Penzance" at Barrington Stage Company, to name a few.
SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE opens tonight, Sept. 10, at Saint Paul's Ordway mainstage and runs till Sept. 22. Visit https://ordway.org/event/smokey-joes-cafe/ for tickets and further details.
Photo: Josh Bergasse, courtesy of the Ordway.