Serendipity Is the Key to NVA’s Outstanding ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’

Eboni Muse (center) rocks out like the “Woman” she is in New Village Arts’ infectious ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller.” Photo by Daren Scott.

Legendary composer Mike Stoller, then 23, almost wasn’t around to learn that his “Hound Dog” had just become one of the biggest hits of the 1950s. He’d boarded the transatlantic liner SS Andrea Doria on his way home from a Europe vacation — the ship would collide with another off the Massachusetts coast on July 25, 1956, killing 46 and causing the Doria to capsize 11 hours later.

Fitting, then, that lyricist partner Jerry Leiber would be dockside at that moment, frantically relating the news that “some white kid named Elvis Presley” had fueled the song’s rise to the top of the American pop, R&B and country charts.

That’s serendipity for ya — and locally, it’s in force in mammoth proportion. If Stoller hadn’t survived, Broadway arguably wouldn’t have mounted 1995’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, and Carlsbad’s New Village Arts would have missed out on a show cut of precisely the same cloth.

This jukebox entry is an absolute jewel in every way, from director Tony Houck’s conceptions to the cast’s insane energy to the memories that adorn the spirit of a problematic bygone era.

Rising world tensions were no match for the Lennon-McCartney of the ’50s and very early ’60s, whose doo-wop, blues and rock pedigree could easily span three generations; indeed, they mediated rock’s public acceptance just prior to the arrival of The Beatles, who marked the nation’s musical and cultural trajectories for years to come (speaking of serendipity . . . ).

Their more than 70 charted tunes will be with us forever; and in no uncertain terms, this show reminds us why.

Mizerany is clearly a director’s choreographer, [and] Houck holds his charges with open arms . . .

In the hands of Houck and choreographer Michael Mizerany, the 39 songs morph into 39 playlets as the cast fiddles with props in no particular order, leaps off and on top of the bar, trudges contemplatively to the cafe tables and mumbles among itself like so many armies of semi-disenfranchised customers.

Mizerany is clearly a director’s choreographer, investing as much in his staff’s characterizations as in his movement blueprint; Houck holds his charges with open arms, thoroughly sensing the cast’s intents and, when need be, leaving well enough alone.

Tunes like “Hound Dog” (first recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1953); Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock”; The Drifters’ “On Broadway” (co-written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil); Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City”; Dion DiMucci’s “Ruby Baby” and The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak”: Impossible to believe that such diverse material came from only two artists — but this cast holds it aloft amid Philip David Black’s profound bass vocals in “Keep On Rollin’,” Isaac Kalimo’s strong collaboration on “Poison Ivy” and Trevor Rex’s shenanigans on “Teach Me How to Shimmy.”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who started as blues writers, charted more than 70 hits. Public domain image.

And oh, for Eboni Muse and her way with “I’m a Woman” — she’s a force of nature alongside Melissa Fernandes, Natasha Baenisch and Jasmine January. Kevin “Blax” Burroughs is as plaintive as you care amid his “I (Who Have Nothing),” while Kyle Leatherbury and Baenisch mesmerize amid their “Spanish Harlem.”

Watch the dusky shadows as they play on Christopher Scott Murillo’s tidy set — they’re as much a character as the performer. Meanwhile, Houck and Benjamin Goniea conduct a veritable orchestra in the persons of percussionist Mark Akiyama, bassist Kyle Bayquen, guitarist Andrew Snyder and saxophonist April Leslie (Matt Gill played sax in this particular turn).

Leiber died in 2011 at age 78, while Stoller, 85, was last seen floating in the East River atop the duo’s sea of Grammys. The duo charted more than 70 hits, with their revue garnering seven Tony Award nominations — as to the latter, it is colossally energetic and marvelously fun. By default, it’s also a high-water mark for New Village Arts, a Carlsbad entertainment and visual arts destination (if the venue wasn’t already). Founder and executive artistic director Kristianne Kurner has everything to savor here behind a staff whose talent is eclipsed only by its obvious delight. Positively first-rate.

This review is based on the matinee performance of Feb. 9. Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller runs through March 17 at New Village Arts, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. 760-433-3245,

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