Tuesday was Day 4 of rehearsals for the Theatre Under the Stars production of Smokey Joe's Cafe, the free summer offering this year at Miller Outdoor Theatre and the Houston Press had a chance to sit in on the proceedings — which were coming together in fast-paced rhythms under the watchful eye of choreographer Michelle Gaudette who is directing her first TUTS performance.
This is the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Broadway opening of the musical revue which went on to grab a Tony Award nomination and a Grammy Award with its 39 songs (and a lot of dancing by its nine-member cast). Gaudette said they auditioned players in New York, Los Angeles and Houston before pulling together the cast.
The show, which originally was based on specific actors who starred in it needs certain types, she says, so as actors walked in through the TUTS audition door the initial discernment process could go pretty quickly. Gaudette says that still left her three layers deep in actors who could sing, dance and act, but she was very happy that she got all of her first choices.
One of those first choices, hailing from New York City is Vanessa Sonon (Broadway: Emma understudy in Anything Goes, Lady of the Lake understudy in Spamalot). Sonon says when she was a kid, her dad liked listening to music when they were traveling but “He would only listen to the oldies,” she said.
Turns out that stood her in good stead after being cast in Smokey Joe's Cafe with the show's concentration on the legendary work of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in rock and roll classsics like “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City,” “Love Potion #9” and “Stand By Me.”
Also on hand Tuesday was Fernell Hogan, an 18-year-old recent graduate of Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Hogan signed on for summer duty as an intern choreographer (which is what he wants to be some day). Lately he's been doing a lot of work filling in for missing cast members (other commitments, doctors appointments) which he's adept at handling (the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre alum was in the recent cast of Hair Spray at Miller Outdoor Theatre).
Sonon said when growing up in a small Pennsylvannia farming town she would have given anything to hear Broadway performers. That's why she's so impressed Smoky Joe's Cafe will be presented for free at Miller Outdoor Theatre. “Rock and roll will never die. To hear a real voice live is wonderful,” she said. Especially when they're singing classics like “Jailhouse Rock.”
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Oh and if you look at the video, check out the head slap at about 1:07.
Performances of Smokey Joe's Cafe are scheduled for July 14-19. 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Drive. Free.