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How Joshua Bergasse is putting his own stamp on Smokey Joe's Cafe
At a recent matinee of the Off-Broadway revival of Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller, iconic numbers such as "On Broadway" and "Hound Dog" inspired audience members to sing and dance in their seats. During "Stand By Me," an entire throng jumped up, all clapping and grooving to the beloved tune. That's the power of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's work. Throughout the '50s and '60s, they wrote a wide range of hits for the likes of Elvis, the Coasters, the Drifters and Peggy Lee. For many theatregoers, this is the soundtrack to their youth.
Perhaps that's why Smokey Joe's Cafe, which originally ran on Broadway from 1995 to 2000, doesn't have a book the way other jukebox musicals such as Jersey Boys or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical do. But even though there isn't a script, director-choreographer Joshua Bergasse says the performers -- and the audience -- definitely experience emotional journeys.
"Once we started working with the cast, complete through lines and relationships were created onstage, often by the actors themselves," he says. "Overall, our idea is that this is the cafe everyone met in. And maybe they all decided, in 20 years, we'll all meet here again. It's a reunion of sorts, and every number is a memory."
A sought-after Broadway choreographer, Bergasse is known for his energetic and challenging movement. His choreography for On the Town, which earned him a Tony nomination, was a flurry of period mastery, ballet technique and stylized touches.
Originally, he signed on just to choreograph Smokey Joe's Cafe. But when director John Rando had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict, Bergasse took the reins. This production marks his first time directing and choreographing a show in New York.
Bergasse and his team wanted to reinvent the revue for this run. One of the biggest changes they made was to allow it to live outside the decades in which the songs were written. The nine performers sport skinny jeans, flannels, cool hats and flouncy dresses, and they segue seamlessly from body rolls to the Lindy Hop to doo-wop step-touch sequences. "We wanted it to feel very current, so there are homages to all the periods and generations that have experienced this music alongside more contemporary things," says Bergasse. "Michael Jackson is a big inspiration for a lot of the show. Ideas from 'Billie Jean' and 'Smooth Criminal' pop up in our 'On Broadway' for example."
The song selection and order is also different from the Broadway incarnation, and the show is now one breakneck, intermissionless act. "Broadway's Smokey Joe's was created on nine extremely talented and specific people," says Bergasse. "For us to have a successful production, I didn't want to try to necessarily fit the mold of the original. So we've reassigned a lot of who sings what."
Despite Bergasse's background as a choreographer, when casting he made strong vocals the priority. "At the auditions, everyone sang first, and we were open to the possibility that certain people might not be dancers, especially because we were willing to shift who would dance what," he says. "In general, I was prepared to reimagine some of the dance-heavy numbers -- even more so than some of the producers actually. When you're auditioning singers and unbelievable talent comes into the room and blows you away, with my director hat on, I would say to myself, 'I want to hear that person sing that song every day.' So how do I make that work?"
The result is a production that strikes a balance between powerhouse belting and diverse dancing by catering to the cast's talents. So a singer like Alysha Umphress (who worked with Bergasse on On the Town) delivers a heartbreaking "Pearl's a Singer" standing center stage while Dionne D. Figgins, formerly of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, captivates in a Spanish-inflected pas de deux during "Spanish Harlem."
During the numbers assigned to the agile barbershop quartet of Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Jelani Remy, Bergasse was really able to let his choreographer flag fly, crafting synchronized, laser-speed movement. "That's how we were able to make it more complicated in some places, like in 'On Broadway' with the four men," says Bergasse. "If we hadn't found that talent, we wouldn't have been able to do that intricate choreography. I'm learning even more now than I ever have before, that it's really all about collaboration. I want to hear what everyone has to say, and be a conduit for all these ideas. Then, ultimately, I have to be bold enough to make a choice."
To read about a student's experience at Smokey Joe's Cafe, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Lauren Phoenix Kay regularly contributes to TDF Stages.
Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, John Edwards, Dwayne Cooper and Max Sangerman in Smokey Joe's Cafe. Photos by Joan Marcus.