Friday, April 1, 2016

A conversation with the cast of Desert Foothills Theater's SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE

by Gil Benbrook

The musical revue Smokey Joe’s Café features many hit songs from the 50s and 60s written by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.  The 39 songs in the show include such pop, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues classics as “Hound Dog”, “Love Potion #9”, “On Broadway” and “Stand By Me.”  

While there is no conventional plot or character development in the show, it is the songs themselves, and the talent of Leiber and Stoller that are on display. While the duo didn’t invent rock and roll, they did create some of the most recognizable songs of the 50s and 60s, and the show pays homage to the songwriters, the period, and the style of songs.

Under T.A. Burrow's direction, with music direction from Dan Kurek, and choreography by Lynzee J. Foreman, Desert Foothills Theater opens their production of this Grammy winning and Tony nominated Best Musical tonight with a cast made up of nine talented Valley performers, including several younger cast members who will be heading off to college soon.  

The cast members took a break from final rehearsals of the show to answer some questions about the songwriting team, this show and their experiences, exclusively for PHX Stages.

Ali Whitwell

The songs from this show were released long before you were born. Did you know anything about the songwriting duo before you started working on this production and what have you discovered about them since?

"I didn't know much about the composers before starting the show! I did, however, know a lot about the era. I am currently in a long running touring show called Teen Idols at TAD Management which features the most prominent songs from the 50's and 60's, so I feel a pretty strong kinship with the music!"

What solos do you have in this production and, since the show celebrates the songwriters and has minimal plot and no real character development, how are you relating to your songs?

"I have the solos 'I Keep Forgetting,' 'Pearl's a Singer,' and I sing a duet called 'Love me/Don't'. The best part about the music in this show is that it is all so relatable. No matter your walk of life, there is something you can connect to; I think that's one of the best parts about 50s and 60s music! For example, 'I Keep Forgetting' is about break ups, which almost everyone has dealt/will deal with in there lives. 'Pearl's A Singer' is about waking up and realizing you never accomplished everything you have always wanted yet still being able to look back and be happy with what you have done. That is something very near to me recently, as I'm sure it is with everyone eventually. So to answer your question in short, I think the song is relating to me, as it does to everyone, which allows me to feel the song."


You will be graduating high school very soon. Since this may be your last musical you perform in the Phoenix area before you head off to college, what aspects of this production are you finding hold special significance to you?

"As this may very well be my last Arizona production for a while, there are a lot of things in this show that make me feel pretty reminiscent. The most memorable moments in the show, for me, which make me tear up every time we run them are are both the first and last scene when Mason sings 'Stand by Me.' Not only has that song been a huge part of my life, outside of this show, but it speaks so much to how leaving your home feels. Once you make a second family, it becomes so hard to leave, so that song always has me fighting back tears, both happy and sad. "

Skyler Washburn

The songs from this show were released long before you were born. Did you know anything about the songwriting duo before you started working on this production and what have you discovered about them since?

"Well, I had heard the names before, but I didn't realize they had written so many songs that I've listened to before. Like, there are two Elvis songs in the show. They wrote for Elvis - or he sang for them. Blew my mind!"

What solos do you have in this production and, since the show celebrates the songwriters and has minimal plot and no real character development, how are you relating to your songs?

"I have a few moments were I lead some songs, like 'Young Blood,' and 'Love Potion #9,' but the only time that I sing with nobody under me is in my duet with Ali Whitwell which is a split/combo called 'Love Me/Don't'. The lack of plot in the show can make it rough to understand the character that I have, but I just sort of formulate a little plot of my own in my head so that I can deliver the songs better. Its probably different for every person in the cast."

As a younger performer in the Phoenix area, what drew you to appear in Smokey Joe’s Café?

"I was actually approached by DFT for this one! They called me, I checked out the music and learned a bit about the show on my own and then called them back after sorting out my conflicts, of which I really had none, and accepted their offer! I'm not sure if this is the kind of show that I would have auditioned for at any theater due to the fact that it's so dancey, but I'm glad that I've chosen to be a part of this cast. I'm learning from this experience and that's all I've ever wanted from any show, is to walk away with something new in my, for lack of a better term, actors toolbox."


Iesha Mills 

Did you know anything about the songwriting duo before you started working on this production and what have you discovered about them since?

"I was born in the 80's and many of these songs were recorded before my time However I know more about the artist who sang them than the actual songwriters. I have learned that the selections in this Musical are unique and very diverse pieces and they give me a taste of what love and romance was at a time I never lived in. I only learned about Leiber and Stoller being songwriters because of Smokey Joes Café, but I happy to know of them now."

What solos do you have in this production and, since the show celebrates the songwriters and has minimal plot and no real character development, how are you relating to your songs?

"I perform 'Fools Fall In Love' and 'Hound Dog' and 'Saved' in Smokey Joes Café. The character I portray is BJ. Although not much was given about her story, I can still relate to the lyrics because I have been a Fool in Love, I have had my share of Hound Dogs, and My Faith gives me a fresh start. I love effortlessly, I like being blunt and Confident as well. I relate to the words so it makes it easy to just be myself."

What aspects of your stand up comedy experiences are you bringing to your part and your songs?

"Being an Entertainer is my dream. Stand Up Comedy allows me to see the humor in the toughest situations. I perform many different styles of Comedy depending on the type of audience and environment I am in. I can adapt anywhere. My character goes through the mood swings of love and life and she is passionate in each song. I bring Confidence, Humor, and even a little Attitude into each move I make. My experiences in Comedy allow me to bring my Boldness and Sassy style to the stage. I am enjoying every moment of it."

Joshua Vern

Did you know anything about the songwriting duo before you started working on this production and what have you discovered about them since?

"I had never heard the names Leiber and Stoller before the show. I probably don't even have to mention that I recognized almost all of the music; anybody will. It's a nice healthy reminder that most artists don't write their own music. There's a man behind the curtain. Sometimes two."

What solos do you have in this production and, since the show celebrates the songwriters and has minimal plot and no real character development, how are you relating to your songs?

"Maybe I'm a bad actor, but... I don't know how much I've thought about that! I've got one duet with Jessica, who's darling and gives me so much to play off of, and then almost immediately after I sing a song about a stripper -- so there are some breaks in continuity pretty much regardless of how you put the show together in your head. For me, the most important part of the show isn't trying to tell a story, but just to have fun. The show has been brilliantly put together by TA and Damon to imply some kind of plot, but nothing is necessarily "established". I look forward to hearing how different audience members interpret the show."

You are a songwriter yourself. Is there anything you’ve learned from the songwriting skills of Leiber and Stroller since working on this production?

"Oh, you have to bring that up? Yeah... I do some freelance composition on the side. I don't know about 'songwriting;' I usually do instrumental stuff. But eh, semantics. The most important thing I've taken from this show, and I've had to learn it several times over: keep it simple. I have a bad habit of overcomplicating everything. Leiber and Stoller were masters of doing exactly not that. The idea is to have people walk away singing your music. I still struggle with it, but I've come a long way, I think, over the past few years."

Kim Cooper-Schmidt

The songs from this show were released long before you were born. Did you know anything about the songwriting duo before you started working on this production and what have you discovered about them since?

"Although I was not familiar with specifics of the duo, I was aware at a very young age when they were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As a child, the dance studio I danced with incorporated much of their music into performances. I know  the music was influential to my parents in their generation.  While working in this production, I've learned a little more along the way about this incredible duo. The extent of just how many songs they wrote or had a part in, amazes me. You just don't see that now a days. While some of their music can engage you with humor, other songs have this incredible beauty and depth like, 'Spanish Harlem,' which is a favorite of mine that I get to dance to with Michael in this production."

What solos do you have in this production and, since the show celebrates the songwriters and has minimal plot and no real character development, how are you relating to your songs?

"'Falling', 'Trouble' and 'I am a Woman' are some songs, I sing. These songs are all so different from one another. You go from one extreme to the other- First in the heart of a shy teenage girl and then to a different type of woman who is quite confident of herself. I love that!  The lyrics from these numbers really stick in your head. I took the time to dive into the lyrics but I also looked more into artists who brought these numbers to light originally. I feel as an audience member, it is both engaging and comforting to hear and see a little bit of the original artist in each song. After all, These songs bring back so many memories for folks. It's crystal clear when you hear them sing or clap along. They're transported in time! I love to see them enjoy it!"

In addition to appearing in numerous musicals across the Valley you are also an aerial choreographer. What drew you to Smokey Joe’s Café and are you finding any way to incorporate your aerial choreographer skills into your part and your songs?

"What drew me into performing Smokey Joe's Cafe was the music and the Directing team. I have performed in various venues across the valley singing classics like the music in this production and there's something very special when you can transport an audience back in time in enjoying these pieces! You can see it in their faces. That means a lot to me to make this a positive experience for them. In respect to my skills as an aerial choreographer, there are unfortunately no aerial rigs in this show and although my dream is to sing and fly in a musical one day as Mary Poppins or Peter Pan, the closet I come to flying and singing in this show is in 'Jail House Rock' when I get tossed into the air to do a split jump or doing a Grand Jete in Spanish Harlem! We have an amazing choreographer, Lynzee Foreman, who is very physical! I LOVE that!"



Jack Lambert

The songs from this show were released long before you were born. Did you know anything about the songwriting duo before you started working on this production and what have you discovered about them since?

"I recognized some of the songs, and I was a big Elvis fan, but I didn't realize they wrote the songs.  I guess it was a little naive, but super interesting to see how broad of an impact two composers could make.  They really had a wide range of genres and feelings to their songs."

What solos do you have in this production and, since the show celebrates the songwriters and has minimal plot and no real character development, how are you relating to your songs?

"The solos that I have are 'Jailhouse Rock,' 'Teach Me How to Shimmy,' and 'Ruby.'  They are the songs that resemble Dion and the Belmonts and Elvis styles of early rock.  They are super exciting to perform, and full of energy.  Because you really have nothing else to go on in the show, you really have to focus on telling the story within the song.  The poetry of the songs are far from arbitrary, and connecting the rock with intention makes the song drive better.  So, I guess really connecting with the lyrics as if they were speaking to or about someone helps a lot."

As a younger performer in the Phoenix area, what drew you to appear in Smokey Joe’s Café?

"Smokey Joe's is a show that is basically a giant concert.  The twist is that the performers are taking it a step further by performing the songs in a musical theater fashion, which adds a ton of intensity to the songs that you wouldn't normally get.  Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?'

Mason Reeves

The songs from this show were released long before you were born. Did you know anything about the songwriting duo before you started working on this production and what have you discovered about them since?

"Honestly, prior to this show I had never heard of them. I had heard their music but hadn't recognized that they were the overarching similarity that tied them all together. Over the course of the show, I've learned just how vast their portfolio is and how theatrical their music was in the 50's and 60's"

What solos do you have in this production and, since the show celebrates the songwriters and has minimal plot and no real character development, how are you relating to your songs?

"The solos that I have in the show are 'Searchin,' 'Treat Me Nice,' 'D.W. Washburn,' and 'I Who Have Nothing.' Fortunately for me, in a majority of my scenes I maintain this same sort of drunken character whose arc I can create for myself throughout the show. My character serves as the sort of initial narrator in the beginning, painting the musical as a nostalgic experience for me which finally comes full circle with the song 'I Who Have Nothing' showing the emotional distress that leads to my eventual loneliness and unhappiness."

You will be graduating high school very soon. Since this may be your last musical you perform in the Phoenix area before you head off to college, what aspects of this production are you finding hold special significance to you?

"As this is possibly my final show in the valley, and definitively my final show at DFT, I'm finding special significance in getting to perform where I began my love for theater. The very first time I was ever in the black box it was being used as the dressing room for the kids in Gypsy when I was a third grader. Through the years, I've performed there in various other shows Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors, Dreamgirls, and now Smokey Joe's Café. This theater has seen me develop from a strong dislike for theater to loving it, and it's going to be very difficult for me to leave a place that I find to be a second home."

Jessica Frieling

The songs from this show were released long before you were born. Did you know anything about the songwriting duo before you started working on this production and what have you discovered about them since?

:I didn't know much about the song writing duo, however, I had definitely heard some of their music!  I know I was born quite a bit after these songs were first released, but I love this era of music!  I grew up on a lot of these songs!  They are catchy and contagious and you can't help but sing along and bop your feet too!"

What solos do you have in this production and, since the show celebrates the songwriters and has minimal plot and no real character development, how are you relating to your songs?

"Even though this show doesn't have a strictly written out plot per say, as a cast member, you can sort of see the threads that bind us all together.  The way that T.A. has staged this show really helps us to see the connections we all have to each other.  Our solos are a major part of creating our characters!  I am so excited about all the music in this show, but I LOVE getting to belt out my solos and duets. 'Don Juan,' 'Trouble,' 'You're the Boss,' and 'Some Cats Know.'  All those songs are sung from the perspective of a very strong, bold, and sexy woman.  Drawing from those songs made it much easier to develop the characters.  My songs are so much fun!  From the cast perspective we do see how many of the songs do sort of go together to tell stories, almost like little vignettes of these peoples lives, and the songs sort of play out like memories of this time that's gone by.  It's really fun to be a part of."

Besides being a performer you are a gifted make-up artist and photographer, what drew you to Smokey Joe’s Café and to return to performing after your success in those other areas?

"I love this show!  I don't know how it happened, but I went from performing all the time to suddenly looking back and realizing that it's been at least 5 years since I've performed in a show like this!  Oddly enough, one of the last shows I did was a production of Smokey Joe's Cafe.  I really love this show!  And when I saw the audition listing, I got excited and made a promise to myself to at least make an appointment to audition.  The truth is, theatre is how I've found many of my passions in life.  I started working on makeup in theatre, and it was what propelled me to go to makeup school and then to get my Esthetics license and pursue that dream. Photography, something I've also always had a passion for, was really something that started in my parents back yard, taking headshot for my friends!  Theatre gave me an outlet to be creative and kept me around people who inspired me and helped me to find my passions. I've missed singing. I've missed performing. It was kind of a big decision for me to try and undertake being in a show again. As you grow up, your responsibilities change and trying to fit everything in becomes increasingly more difficult.  What is amazing about all of this is that I've found myself succeeding more in my other endeavors in life as a result.  It's amazing what having a place to dance and sing and show a different side of yourself can do for your soul. I am so grateful to be singing again, and being a part of this wonderful cast and theatre!"


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