Branson on the Bayou
Sit through The Theater Under the Stars version of Smokey Joe's Café -- The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, now at the Wortham, and you won't have to travel to all the way to Branson, Missouri, to get a night of scrubbed-clean crooning. Lawrence-Welk styled versions of such familiar tunes as "Love Potion #9" and "Yakety Yak" and even "Jailhouse Rock" can be found in our own downtown. There's even a pop star to lure you in. Gladys Knight, in all her gorgeous-voiced, diva glory, strolls out to center stage and belts out a song every 15 minutes or so -- in fact the price of the ticket is almost worth it just to hear her sing "Stand By Me." But her rare appearances can't make up for the rest of the production of strung-together pop tunes that have all the bang of day-old bubble gum.
Stephen Helper and Jack Viertel came up with a flawed original concept for the show. Leiber and Stoller wrote most of their famous music in the 1950s and '60s, when the Coasters, The Drifters, Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley recorded hits by the dynamic duo. But without the unique phrasing these great singers brought to the unforgettable tunes, the music flattens out, as most pop music does. The mish-mash of songs cobbled together here becomes little more than Broadway-styled Musak under the direction of Jerry Zaks.
The cast is competent, though the group of minor talents can't produce enough electricity to fill up the oversized Wortham. And most regrettable is that the back-beat eroticism that powers so many of these songs has been scoured out. Even "Teach Me How to Shimmy," in which Christina L. Ames stands on a tabletop dressed in a snow white fringed dress, wiggling all over, comes off with all the dirty-dancing appeal of Disney.
Only Kathleen Murphy's rendition of "Fools Fall in Love" (which is good enough to repeat in the second act) has the sort of heart and soul that a great pop tune needs to be lasting. Deanna Greene, who sings the lesser known "Don Juan" and "Some Cats Know" with an enormous purple feather boa, also charmed the opening night audience with her flaming smile and the coy, come-hither tosses of her pretty head.
Of course, as the only star on the roster, Gladys Knight was able to show off all of what makes her a pop icon. Her enormous and earthy voice is filled with enough gravel and growl to give soul to even the lamest of songs such as "Love Me / Don't." And she struts the stage with an almost irreverent confidence, as though she really could do the show in her sleep but has graciously chosen not to. Frankly, it would be enough to make the production worthwhile, if only she would deign to sing more than the handful of times she did on opening night.
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