Monday, July 2, 2012

Geniuses of rock and roll

As I left Mamaroneck's Emelin Theatre after Smokey Joe's Cafe, a revue of songs by rock and roll pioneers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, I had to check my right ankle to see if it was significantly more muscular than the left, as I had been vigorously tapping my foot for two hours.

The show, which ran for five years after premiering on Broadway in 1995, showcases the amazing depth and range of this songwriting and record producing team whose collaboration began in 1950 when they were both 17 and ended with Lieber's death in 2011.

The audience was mostly north of age forty, but that's to be expected when Lieber and Stoller's greatest hits mostly came in the 1950s and 60s. Any list has to start with such classics as "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy," "Charlie Brown," "Stand by Me," "Jailhouse Rock," "Love Potion No. 9," "On Broadway," "Spanish Harlem," "There Goes My Baby." Elvis alone recorded 20 of their songs.

An engaging nine-member cast put across about 40 of the duo's songs with class and sizzling choreography by director Kenney M. Green in a production by Westchester Sandbox Theatre, subject of this blog post from a couple of weeks ago. Kevin Rees' set in blue and beige featured two staircases flanking open-side boxes for the band and sliding panels to create different spaces.

It's the first time that the Sandbox, which operates out of a 100-seat storefront venue nearby, has partnered with the 285-seat Emelin, Mamaroneck's main live theater venue, which ironically hasn't produced much theater since its play season collapsed about four years ago with the departure of an artistic director. Since then, the Emelin has presented music and dance performances and rented its space for school performances. Later this month, however, it will present several performances by the Missoula Children's Theater.

For Smokey Joe, Green has assembled nine pros -- Steven Charles, Kate Cherichello, Paula Galloway, Brandon Lavon Hightower, Keva Moolenaar, Jennifer Pace, Steven C. Rich, Derrian Tolden and Randy Taylor -- but without cast photos in the program or a listing of songs and who was singing them, it was impossible to tell who was whom.

However, further Internet research, which I hope is accurate, turned up some clues. Green used the actor/singers in various combinations, but seemed most inspired in Motown-style choreography and staging with the quartet of African-American actors Steven Charles, Brandon Lavon Hightower, Steven C. Rich and Derrian Tolden. They do fine work, but it seemed to unbalance the show a little when other actors didn't get such interesting movements.

Of the women, I thought Keva Moolenaar and Paula Galloway had the strongest voices, with Galloway doing a Jennifer Hudson-like emotional belt on "Brand New Fool." However, Green overloads the emotion toward the end of the show with this number and Tolden going too far over the top with "I Who Have Nothing." Tolden provides a nice comic focus on a couple of songs, most effectively on "D.W. Washburn" and "Treat Me Nice."

For this viewer, it was a revelation to realize that Lieber and Stoller also wrote cabaret songs that were as good as anything Kurt Weill turned out. Jennifer Pace, whom I thought was best doing intimate songs rather than belting, got my attention with "Pearl's A Singer." Moolenaar vamped a feather boa and a chair doing a surprisingly modern "Don Juan," where the refrain goes "your money's gone," and the sexy "Some Cats Know," a ballad about taking it slow in intimate moments.

Randy Taylor energetically led "Jailhouse Rock," but that song and "Hound Dog" (sung with the original lyrics), indelibly linked with Elvis, weren't given enough of an original spin and wouldn't compete with anyone's memory of the King.

Steven C. Rich tossed a very amusing tantrum on "There Goes My Baby," with three-fourths of the quartet backing him. Steven Charles seemed smoothly to channel Nat King Cole (in my book, a huge compliment) on "Loving You." The ensemble finale fittingly brought the show to a satisfying close with a rousing "Stand by Me."

Adam Tilford was listed as musical director and conductor, so I assume that was him conducting from behind the keyboard and keeping an excellent five-piece band on track, but the musicians were not identified in the program. Green could have called upon the band to provide graceful musical segues for a couple of awkward silent scene changes.

Westchester Sandbox's artistic director, Dan Ferrante, in a conversation at intermission, mentioned some of the technical challenges the company was working through at the Emelin and from the viewpoint of an audience member, sound quality is a big one.

The sound system seemed to lend a coarse quality to the voices sometimes, basically failing at the essential function of a sound system - showcasing the voices on stage like a diamond setting. I would also think sound designer Howard Fredrics will be working further on balancing volume levels, as the instruments often overwhelmed the voices.

Carla Linton's lighting design was a tad too frenetic during "On Broadway" and it seemed that a couple of cues were missed, leaving performers momentarily in shadows, but overall, it successfully reflected the songs' various moods.

There is a huge amount of potential for Westchester Sandbox and the Emelin and I hope both continue to explore it. What a joy it would be to welcome back plays and musicals on a consistent basis to Mamaroneck's local theater. Westchester Sandbox, which produces theater by and for young people as well as adults, has a stream of productions, an energetic and sharp artistic director and a vision.

Smokey Joe's Cafe had the audience clapping and cheering - and if there had been a dance floor, they wouldn't have been sitting.


  1. The microphones were distorting, in part because the singers have very loud voices, but also, more importantly, because the microphone design is not well suited for this sort of high-energy musical theatre.

    Turning down the band volume in order to adjust the balance would be an unsatisfactory solution, as the mix would simply become drum heavy and lacking in depth, as the drums are not even miked, are not located in a pit, and are therefore, not able to be turned down.

    Similarly, turning up the volume of voices would result in an even more "coarse" sound - i.e. more distortion, as well as feedback. There is one solution and one solution only -- replacing the microphone capsules with better and/or more well-suited models, for example, a proper headset mic or a mic with a forward facing, rather than side facing element.

    Some limited improvement in the sound quality of the voices MIGHT be possible to achieve if additional time could be devoted to sound-related technical rehearsal, whereby further equalization could be attempted in an effort to partially mitigate the effects of the overloaded microphone elements. Without that, there's very little that can be done to improve matters further.

  2. As a point of info, which performance did you attend? Was it Friday, the 29th, Saturday the 30th or Sunday the 1st?

  3. Thank you, anonymous, for your very helpful expansion on the sound issues. As one who has done sound design myself, I know how hard it is to get right. I attended the performance on Friday the 29th.

  4. Ah, opening night. No sound checks whatsoever were able to be done for that performance, and the band had also not attended any rehearsal, so the first time running the show with band was during that performance. Naturally, balancing would have been an issue, even with the optimum microphone setup.

    Distortion remains an ongoing problem, which, given the setup, cannot be eliminated. Balance has definitely improved since Friday, now that there has been an opportunity to run the show three times with the band.

    I'd encourage you to attend the show again to see what you think.

  5. I'll see if I can manage it. Thanks again.

  6. Thank you for the amazing and informative review! So sorry I am so late in reading it. As a point of fact, "Hound Dog" is not reminiscent of Elvis in this production simply because, Mr. Leiber and Mr.Stoller wrote it for "Big Mama" Thorton a couple of years before Elvis recorded it. So it is a tribute to her. Just a small FYI! Thank you so much for seeing the show :-)

    Kenney Green