July 10--Years before shows like "Mamma Mia!," "Jersey Boys" and "Motown" demonstrated the power of pop music on Broadway, a small production devoted to the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller became the sleeper hit of the 1995-1996 season, launching the "jukebox" musical genre.
"Smokey Joe's Cafe" received disdainful reviews from many of the major critics -- including a pan from Ben Brantley of the New York Times -- but audiences loved it.
The show ran for five years, becoming the most successful musical revue in the history of Broadway.
"Smokey Joe's Cafe" has arrived at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, running Thursday, July 11 through Sunday, July 28.
Singer-actor Ron Lucas has been performing in the musical for several years and believes one of the secrets of its success is that the 1950s- and 1960s-era pop hits are ageless and seem to appeal to audiences of all ages.
"Here's the thing that I find so interesting: Even little kids know these songs because a lot of the TV shows they watch still use them," Lucas said of such perennials as "Stand By Me," "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock."
"They know the songs as well as their parents -- especially the weird and wacky ones like 'Poison Ivy,' " he added.
Lucas gets to end the show with "Stand By Me," which is in a class all by itself in the Leiber and Stoller catalog.
"There is so much history with that one and it has been used in umpteen movies," he said.
Lucas laughed when asked if he thought there would be similar shows devoted to today's pop music, 50 or 60 years from now.
"I don't know about that. How would you do rap songs for audiences who are 60 years old, with all of that weird electronic stuff?" he said.
The performer fears that the appreciation of well-crafted, ageless tunes is disappearing on the contemporary music scene.
"They took music out of the schools, so it's hard to know what will happen in the future," he said, adding that today's quickly disposable pop stars might not leave behind much of a legacy for tribute shows several decades from now.
"A real problem now is that stardom is coming too fast for the artists. Now you can be a hit from YouTube videos, but without any experience of performing on the road. And they don't know how to protect their voices so they might not be able to perform in a few years," he said.
Singers from earlier eras developed powerful voices coming out of church choirs and they knew how to hold on to that sound.
"Cissy Houston is a good friend and she sang backup for 50 years. She goes to my church and I can't believe how she still has such a strong voice at 80," the Newark, N.J. resident noted.
Lucas was bit by the performing bug as a child when he saw Sammy Davis Jr. on television and said, "That's what I want to do."
The singer-actor counts himself lucky to have found steady work in a wide range of musicals, from "Miss Saigon" to "Hair" to his own tribute show devoted to the music of Nat King Cole.
"I'm happy to be doing something I love and not a desk job. ... Like every other actor in New York, I've done my time as an elf at Macy's Santaland. I'm glad that's behind me," he said, laughing.
Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Through July 28. Thursday, July 11 and Friday, July 12 at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 13 and Sunday, July 14 at 3 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 17 at 3 and 8 p.m. $59. 203-787-4282. www.longwharf.org.
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