Broadway veteran returns for Circa 21's 'Smokey Joe's'

Posted Online: Sept. 20, 2012, 9:58 am
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By Jonathan Turner,
On Broadway, they say there's always magic in the air. And while Rock Island's historic Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse is far from the Great White Way, a Broadway veteran is bringing some of that transcendent joy back in its latest show.

Tony Parise -- a 52-year-old St. Louis native -- is an accomplished director, choreographer and performer, and has been artistic director of Camp Broadway in New York since 1998 and has helped to create and shape many of its programs, including the company's signature summer camp. He's returned to Circa to direct the musical "Smokey Joe's Cafe," which he last led at Circa in 2004. Audiences have asked for it to be reprised.

The plotless (but dance-filled) revue of 39 pop standards by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- which ran on Broadway from 1995 to 2000 -- includes "Charlie Brown," "Hound Dog," "Spanish Harlem," "Stand By Me," "Ruby Baby," "Jailhouse Rock," "Love Potion #9" and "On Broadway."

"The music is so fantastic; the songs are iconic. The performers were really very good last time," Mr. Parise said. Instead of in-person auditions this time, the director reviewed videos online from about 100 people, before choosing his cast of five men and four women.

The new cast includes three who may be familiar to Circa audiences -- Joseph J. Baez of "West Side Story," "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"; Deidra Grace from "All Shook Up" and "Hairspray"; and Sara King, who recently was beautician Paulette in "Legally Blonde: The Musical."

Revues of single artists or songwriters are big on Broadway in recent years (think "Jersey Boys," "Mamma Mia," "Movin' Out" and "All Shook Up") because music is very important in people's lives, Mr. Parise said. "It evokes a time period in your life. When you hear the songs, it takes you back to the time when you didn't have so many worries. It's just fun."

He admires the diversity of genres that Leiber and Stoller tackled. "It's not one type of song over and over. There's such a huge variety," he said. "They wrote for so many different kinds of people, from Elvis Presley to Peggy Lee."

Mr. Parise first directed for Circa 15 years ago, and his credits here include "The Wizard of Oz" (2002), "A Holiday to Remember" (2004) and the John Denver revue, "Almost Heaven" (2007).

He acted in his first professional show when he was 10, in "Oliver," in a production starring Sid Caesar at The Muny in St. Louis. His parents had started him in dance classes at age 7. "I took to it like a duck to water," Mr. Parise said. "I was really good at it. And the better you are, the more you want to do it."

He completed just one semester at Southwest Missouri State University before auditioning for the New York City Ballet school and being accepted on full scholarship. His first New York job was as an understudy and assistant stage manager for the first national tour of "A Chorus Line" at age 19. That's when he first came to appreciate being on the other side of the footlights, and understanding how an entire show is put together.

"I had a gift of seeing the bigger picture," he said. Mr. Parise also performed in the original Broadway casts of "42nd Street," "Me And My Girl" and "City Of Angels."

Among his diverse directing credits are "Mame," starring Sandy Duncan; "Hello, Dolly!" starring Madeline Kahn; "Where's Charley?" starring Jo Sullivan and Emily Loesser; "Oliver" starring Ellen Greene; "Grease" starring Cindy Williams, and "Me And My Girl" starring Tim Curry. Mr. Parise has directed and choreographed six Camp Broadway special appearances in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, as well as the Camp Broadway Kids special salutes at Carnegie Hall.

His teaching credits include master classes for many organizations including the Academy of Music and Dramatic Artists, Boston Ballet, New Zealand School of Dance and Philadelphia College of Performing Arts.

For a college dropout, Mr. Parise has an unusual affiliation with Harvard University. This will be the 17th year he will direct the infamous Hasty Pudding Theatricals musical, a two-hour original show written and performed by students.

"Those guys are so bright and so knowledgeable, far beyond their years," he said of the all-male shows. "They really know their history."

At Hasty Pudding, which "roasts" a celebrity every year, Mr. Parise has worked with stars such as Harrison Ford, Billy Crystal, Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon, Scarlett Johansson, Sandra Bullock and Halle Berry.

He said his favorite was Jamie Lee Curtis. "She was absolutely a dream -- a joy, very humble, down-to-earth, and very polite."

If you go

What: "Smokey Joe's Cafe."
When: Friday through Nov. 3; Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7:45 p.m., Sunday at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinee at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
Tickets: $47.55 (including dinner and show), $41.28 for matinees (plated lunch), $28.22 for students (18 and younger), and $2 off for seniors (60 and older), available at Circa box office, (309) 786-7733, ext. 2, or at


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