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Director's Collision Jolts Smokey Joe's Cafe

Director Robert Barry Fleming turns the Lesher stage into the hottest joint in town with Center REP's Tony-Award-winning show Friday.

There’s a collision ahead when Smokey Joe’s Cafe opens at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center on Friday, Sept. 2.

Robert Barry Fleming, the director for Center Rep, will be at the wheel, driving African-American culture and music from the 1950s and '60s to crash in a glorious crescendo of music and dance.

“That cultural experiment is what defines us as American,” Fleming says, in a phone interview on the cusp of opening night. “It brings wonderful tensions and the birth of rock and roll.”

With Tony Award-winning words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the production launches the action-packed musical revue with 39 greatest hits, like “Stand by Me”, “Spanish Harlem”, and “Love Potion #9”.

Fleming is leaving the song order much like the original production, but giving his version a stronger sense of 2011.

“The performers, the American Idol sense, innovations in movement and costuming are informed by a new sensibility,” he says. “I didn’t try to shy away from those anachronisms co-existing with the period of the '50s and '60s.”

The set, designed by Kelly James Tighe, captures a sense of place with an urban playground that is flexible; suggesting different locations instead of the Vegasy, concert feel of the original.

Fleming looked for young, vibrant performers while casting the show. Familiar with Bay Area actors after directing his Shellie Award-winning All Shook Up and earning the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for She Loves Me (both for Center Rep), he found actors who could work well as a group, but also take center stage and lead.

“I wanted them to bring their own sense of unique talent and the perspective of their world shining through. I needed a bass to hit low numbers and an evocative group of guys who suggest The Coasters,” he explains.

When a few last-minute replacements were necessary, Fleming admits, it was terrifying.

“We waited with bated breath, but we ended up with the cast that was meant to be,” he claims.

Fleming’s ability to go with the irregular flow of theater springs from meticulous planning, even before rehearsals begin.

“I start with a lot of research into the movement of the period. I had two pages of notes and references from the original substructure. I checked out everything about The Coasters, The Drifters, Elvis and others,” he recalls. “Due to our rehearsal time, it was clear I would not be able to do a lot of improvisation, so I came in with a lot of it choreographed.”

Looking for eternal influences that transcend time periods, Fleming chose “stepping” as a basic choreographic element. The percussive, footwork-intensive dance movement originated in the '50s, but is familiar to today’s Idol-savvy audiences.

“I like to ask questions: What would the shimmy be in contemporary street dance? You continually see how inventive people can be,” Fleming muses.

A background in film and a career that includes chairing the Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Department at the University of San Diego, Fleming says trusting simple movement and staging, while maintaining a “very active internal world,” is essential.

‘We don’t trust that simplicity so much in the theater, and there’s musical air between phrases that can drop if clarity of thought isn’t happening in those moments,” he insists.

Telling stories with visual language and centering the dancers as the primary engine, Fleming’s style harks back to his mentors: Michael Bennett and Gillian Lynne for choreography; Daniel Aukin, Jeff Calhoun and Liesl Tommy as directors. 

As tech and preview week begin, Fleming is confident: relying on his cast, crew and — oh, yes — buckling his belt in anticipation of a magnificent impact.

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