Idol Cafe

Last Wednesday night, while the rest of America was watching Bo and Carrie duke it out in the final hour of American Idol, I was watching a room full of singers on a different stage. And thinking that maybe I've been watching too much television lately, because Phoenix Theatre's production of Smokey Joe's Cafe -- which is, in a word, superb -- began to look to me like an episode of AI, albeit one with better voices and without the dais of annoying judges blathering after each musical number.

Although I was deeply impressed with Smokey Joe's, which is full of wonderful Leiber/Stoller songs that have been staged brilliantly by director/choreographer Robert Kolby Harper, I found my mind wandering. I wanted Carrie Underwood to be the country's next American Idol, but would her slightly off-key rendering of that unfortunate Martina McBride song last week lose her votes? And was it possible that people would vote for Bo even though he looked less like an idol than he did a refugee from a Grand Funk tribute band? (I liked Bo, but after watching him perform I always wanted to send him a package of barrettes and a disposable razor.)

In order to stay focused, I began to imagine that the cast members of Smokey Joe's were Idol contestants, and that I was a celebrity judge paid to comment on them. After each song, I tried to guess what Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul would say, then substituted my own comments for snooty Simon Cowell's, since he lifted that whole "pissy arrogant mean guy" routine from me in the first place (although you'd never find me on national television in a teeny tee shirt that emphasized my man-boobs).

So when Tori Sanchez sang "Falling," I imagined Randy saying, "Yo, dog. Ah, for me, that wasn't your best performance. It was a little pitchy." And I figured Paula would say, "You should be proud, because America loves you. And you're so, just, I don't know. You're just so you! I'm your biggest fan and I love you." So I said, "I felt like I was on a cruise ship. In the basement. You'll have to do better than that."

When Fredena Williams belted out "Fools Fall in Love," my favorite Leiber and Stoller song, I could just see Randy smiling like Buddha and hooting, "The dog pound standing O, baby!" From under a sequined cowboy hat, my imaginary Paula opened her glitter-encrusted eyelids about halfway and slurred, "I just love your earrings tonight. They're so sparkly, and you just, I'm, you, I. So, good for you!" To which I could only add, "You know, Fredena, I wasn't sure about you when you first started in this competition, but after that number, I have to say: In a contest full of Hostess Fruit Pies, you are a home-baked stollen."

Things got a little tense after Clark Webb performed "Stay Awhile," about which Randy said, "Um um um um um um. Aaaaaah, uh. Hmmm," and Paula announced, "You're the best singer in this competition. I love you, I love your look, I can't wait to be the first in line to buy your CD." To which I had to add, "Actually, Clark, Paula will have her assistant call your publicist and ask for a free copy of your CD, as long as it doesn't have any songs on it about how she was giving you hand jobs backstage between numbers."

It became clear that Erahn Patton was the one to beat in this competition, especially after she did "Some Cats Know" in a big red boa and after hitting some amazing notes in "Don Juan." She had some occasional competition from tall, leggy Carolyn McPhee, who did a swell version of "Pearl's a Singer," about which Randy said, "Dude, listen, here it is, man. You pulled it out. I gotta give you props, man," and Paula hiccupped, "I love you. You're the best singer in this competition. You're just. It's. I'm. They. Wow." And I had to tell her, "You sang that beautifully. But whoever put you in that awful wig should be fired, because you look like a drag queen in it." I got booed, but then Arthur W. Marks did an amazing reading of "I (Who Have Nothing)," causing Randy to shout, "Yo yo yo yo yo, dude!" and Paula to pass out. I covered by saying, "Arthur, what Paula means is she liked your performance more than a gallon of margaritas, and for once I have to agree with her," and then everyone liked me again.

Because I wanted to be completely fair, I took an informal Idol poll of some of the audience as we headed for our cars after the show. Darryl Calmese Jr. seemed to be a favorite among the older crowd, and Clark was popular with the girls. I had to throw out everybody's votes, though, after one old lady voted for "that nice young Negro," since that could have been any one of several cast members. I finally decided that my vote was the only one that mattered, and so I named Erahn Patton the winner, because she's a great singer with wonderful stage presence and she's humble enough to admit in her playbill bio that she once appeared in a production of Children of Eden.

As I headed home to TiVo and Carrie Underwood's unsurprising victory (despite a head cold and a truly regrettable hairdo), I thought, "How nice for Carrie. But Erahn would never wet-braid her hair and call it a style, or go on a 40-city tour sponsored by Pop Tarts." And then my imaginary Paula took over my body and drove my car into a tree.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela