Tony Winner Levi Kreis Is Getting Back to His Musical Roots in Smokey Joe's Café at Arena Stage

The star of Broadway’s ”Million Dollar Quartet” remembers a childhood of mentoring by rock-and-roll hall of famer Brenda Lee.

Singer/songwriter Levi Kreis may have only one Broadway credit, as Jerry Lee Lewis in the 2010 musical Million Dollar Quartet, but that career-making stint was enough to earn him a Tony Award (for Best Featured Actor in a Musical). Now the multitalented performer is onstage again — this time in a fresh production of the Tony-nominated musical Smokey Joe's Café at Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage.

Smokey Joe's Café is built around the music of songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, creators of many '50s and '60s chart-topping hits, from "Hound Dog" to "Love Potion No. 9." Though Leiber and Stoller's career hit its zenith decades before Kreis was born, the actor says the duo's classic songs in Smokey Joe's were the music of his childhood. TheaterMania spoke to Kreis about becoming his own boss, touring with Brenda Lee, and making his Arena Stage debut.

Tony winner Levi Kreis is one of the stars of Randy Johnson's production of Smokey Joe's Café at Arena Stage in Washington D.C.
Tony winner Levi Kreis is one of the stars of Smokey Joe’s Café, directed by Randy Johnson, at Arena Stage in Washington D.C.
(© Tony Powell)

What has been the most enjoyable part of this Smokey Joe's Café experience?

[Director] Randy Johnson is really good about withholding conclusions and allowing the creative process to reveal itself. I love watching him work. I also had an experience recently that reminded me of why I love doing what I do. Michael J. Mainwaring was singing a song and literally, I left in tears because you could just see his authenticity. That's the kind of stuff that then you walk away thinking, That's the perfect memory of a good work day in musical theater.

Do you know this genre of music well?

It's stuff that I grew up with…There was a rock-and-roll legend by the name of Brenda Lee, who was a friend of the family. And I grew up as a little kid, on her bus, watching her perform. She was, even at that age, mentoring me. And it was Brenda Lee herself who sang a lot of this music by Leiber and Stoller, that I heard for the first time. So as I was flipping through this book, I was like, Oh my god, a lot of this material is the material that I heard from my one biggest mentor growing up.

What makes this particular production unique?

Usually Smokey Joes Café is more or less a revue of music, and what I love about it is that it's Randy [Johnson's] vision to bring it back to where the music originated and create visual character arcs to go to the music and actually get it out of the revue format and put it into Brooklyn. And let there be some stoops and some fire escapes and some story lines that are going on during the songs. Because the truth of the matter is, Randy Johnson talks about how usually the songs that mean the most to us are the songs that recall very specific memories.

What have you been focusing your energy on since Broadway?

Prior to Million Dollar Quartet, I had been building my own career as a singer/songwriter, and that's been my main job for 10 years. It's been about the TV and film licensing, the touring, and being an entrepreneur. I'm very much a proponent for artists beginning to question how they can not only be an employee of a great show, but what else in their life can they do to actually be the business of their own life, to create their own system, to use their own talents to create different streams of income to help to support what they love to do. So for me, being a singer/songwriter and running my own record label has been an incredible blessing.

Would you be interested in returning to Broadway?

Absolutely. I'm always looking for unique and interesting and unusual. Art, for me, is not about just grabbing the next thing, it's about grabbing the right next thing. I come from a place growing up where we learned that art, music, acting, even the musical theater pieces that my church did when we were in elementary school, can be a ministry. Art can be healing, and for me, in looking for certain roles, it's all about, What do I think that I can actually be a good steward of? What story can I tell that I can hold in my hand and let that story actually be a healing power to other people? And when you think we've got our whole lives to do this, why rush to take everything and be in a hurry? Why approach the love of our art in a manic way?

What can people plan on seeing in this production of Smokey Joe's?

I can say with absolute certainty that they've not seen a version of Smokey Joe's Café like what we're creating. It's going to be incredibly unique, and I'm really excited to be a part of it.

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