‘Smokey Joe’s Café’
Through June 8
1101 6th St., S.W.
Levi Kreis will be the first to tell you that his heart does not belong to Broadway. But that doesn’t mean the out singer/actor has turned his back on musical theater. Currently he’s starring in Arena Stage’s production of the Broadway hit “Smokey Joe’s Café,” and loving every minute of it.
At a sit-down in one of Arena’s aquarium-like conference rooms, Kreis shares his thoughts on life, career and working in D.C. Settling into his chair, he takes in the view — sailboats glide past on the calm Washington Channel and pink blossoms move in the breeze. The sun is bright. He squints slightly and says, “Really beautiful. This is my first time seeing this. I’ve been in rehearsal all day.”
The longest-running musical revue in Broadway history, “Smokey Joe’s Café” is a hard-driving tribute to the legendary rock ‘n roll songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. With almost 40 songs, it features huge hits like “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” “Love Potion #9” and “On Broadway.”
Though he’d never seen the show, Kreis was eager to be a part of this production. “I’d heard great things about our director Randy Johnson (who staged the terrific ‘One Night with Janis Joplin’ that played at Arena before moving to New York). Also my representatives were enthusiastic about me starting relationship with Arena. But mostly it was because I feel a special connection to Leiber and Stoller’s music.”
“There’s a story behind this,” says Kreis putting on a strong Tennessee accent. “As a teenager in small town Oliver Springs, Tennessee, my mother, Connie Lee, was president of the Brenda Lee fan club. They met, and by the time I was born they were really good friends. At 8 or 9, I’d seen 36 of her performances. She sang Leiber and Stoller songs like ‘Kansas City’ and ‘Saved.’ I cut my teeth on this stuff. So it’s a real thrill for me to be doing it now.”
Working with Johnson has proved to be even better than he’d hoped, says Kreis, 32. “This version of the show is definitely not the same show that people saw in New York. Randy has re-imagined a sexier, edgier, more soulful version, assigning songs to different characters. He’s really created his own vision.” Kreis adds that Johnson carefully selected a nine-person cast whose three leads (Kreis, E. Faye Butler and Nova Y. Paton) know how to make a song their own.
“Randy and our musical director Victor Simonson have been very generous in allowing us to find our own interpretations of these well-known songs. It’s very challenging and exciting to make songs like ‘Stand By Me’ your own, but that’s exactly what we’re doing here.”
He’s equally stoked about sharing a stage with the versatile Butler and big-voiced Payton, two Helen Hayes Award-winning D.C. favorites: “I have to make myself stay in the moment on stage. When I’m facing off singing with either of these women I want to forget I’m an actor and simply enjoy them. They’re so good. I have to resist to getting totally enamored.”
His favorite moment of the show is a singing “Kansas City” with Butler and Payton. Kreis says they’ve created a great sound with a Manhattan Transfer vibe. Another favorite is his solo “I Keep Forgettin’,” a tune about lost love. “Finding where that is from an emotional standpoint has been really intense,” he says. “And I like intense.”
Whether gospel, rhythm and blues, rock or show tunes, music has always come naturally for Kreis. He tells a story about coming home from kindergarten graduation back in Oliver Springs, and picking out “Pomp and Circumstance” on the family’s old upright piano. Family lore says he got it from his great grandmother who played banjo by ear. At 12, he was performing in a different church every weekend, and by 15, he was touring the south with his own gospel album.
After college in Tennessee, Kreis left for Los Angeles to pursue a music career. Recording companies didn’t quite know what to do with the good-looking, charming southerner whose strong voice was soulful yet versatile. But the musical theater world happily snapped him up. At a casting call for the West Coast tour of the musical “Rent,” he landed the plumb part of ex-junkie Roger. He got into film too. He played Matthew McConaughey’s troubled brother in the 2001 indie thriller “Frailty” and had a big part in 2002’s “Don’t Let Go” with Katharine Ross.
But Kreis is best known for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” For his efforts, he won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
“I initially got involved because I needed grocery money,” he says. “It started out as workshops that seemed to go on forever. Then there were runs in Seattle and Chicago. Over time I really got into the role. When we learned the show going to Broadway, I was shocked. But winning the Tony was a real eye opener. It taught me that musical theater was something that even if it wasn’t my ultimate goal, it was something I needed to take seriously.”
For many actors winning the Tony is a life’s dream. “What can I say? You feel what you feel. I wish I was a fierce dancer on ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ but that’s someone else’s reality.”
For Keis, the experience was intensely personal — the Tony win was the culmination of the toughest year of his life. In May of 2009 he gave up drugs, alcohol and a pack-and-a-half-a-day cigarette habit. He’s been clean and sober ever since. “It’s beyond anything the proudest achievement of my life,” he says, emotion swelling in his voice. “I had really reached a do-or-die moment. I could no longer live that way. The tension and conflict was too scary for me.”
That same year, Kreis met his partner, whom he declines to name. The couple is based in Chicago.
“At the core of every addiction is self-loathing. And drugs weren’t my only vice. It all came from a place of having learned to hate myself,” he says. Kreis was raised a fundamentalist Baptist. In his youth, he endured six years of conversion therapy with the hope of becoming straight. “That process was psychologically and emotionally damaging and planted deep-seeded feelings of self loathing. It breaks my heart that it still goes on.”
At 24, Kreis officially came out through his album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. “I made the decision at a time when I was very broke. I was waiting for my guest appearance on NBC’s ‘The Apprentice’ to air. In a week I’d moved from Manhattan’s Upper Eastside to Hoboken, New Jersey. So, I took my last $200 and went to a recording studio and recorded the album of straight through. It’s been my most successful album to date.”
There’s been no downside to his coming out, Kreis says. “Before coming out, I was hiding my life. I couldn’t be my authentic self. Eight record labels didn’t know what to do with me. Most wanted me to be a teen heartthrob. Now I can present myself as I am, my truth. The LGBT community has accepted me wholeheartedly.”
Future plans include concert dates and more recordings. There’ll be more theater, but he’d also like to bring his talents together by acting and singing in films. For his upcoming yet-unnamed album, Kreis will return to piano vocals. It’s what his fans want. “I’m grateful there’s a corner of the world that hears what I do. My music career hasn’t screamed as loud as a Tony Award on Broadway, but my fans are there and they’re my family.”