If you saw The Gospel According to Tammy Faye, then you know the work of Aaron Callies. He lent his talents as a choreographer to that 2007 benefit for Bering Community Services, as one way that he helps spread awareness about HIV and AIDS prevention.
Although it’s less likely that you saw him hawking nachos at AstroWorld (“It was a nightmare!” he laughs), that gig was a step on the ladder to his current position as director/choreographer of Musical Theatre of Houston, a new enterprise that’s ready for liftoff with at least two performances of Smokey Joe’s Cafe at 8 p.m., January 14–15, at the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater.
“If ticket demand is there, we could add two or maybe three more performances,” says Callies.
The original Broadway production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe won the 1996 Grammy Award for Best Cast Recording and eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. Five of the performers were nominated in featured actor and actress categories.
“It’s 99 percent song and dance,” says Callies, explaining that the show is mainly a collection of songs written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, complete with a live band onstage. But in addition to their “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” and “Love Potion #9,” among many more golden oldies, Smokey Joe’s Cafe includes a number of hits the duo wrote with others, such as “Stand By Me,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “On Broadway.”
Lieber and Stoller’s showstopping “I’m a Woman” has been recorded by talents as diverse as Peggy Lee, Bette Midler, and Reba McEntire. Raquel Welch sang it with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show, and Melinda Doolittle performed it twice on the sixth season of American Idol.
Callies has expanded the cast from seven performers on Broadway to 20 in this production, which he promises will deliver “twice the music, twice the dancing, twice the rock and roll.”
The performers began rehearsing last summer, with musical director Jacob Carr coming on board in November.
Callies was born in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, but grew up in San Antonio, graduating from Highlands High School in 1975. After a few semesters at San Antonio College, he transferred to a university in Corpus Christi, but says, “It was too slow for me. I jumped that ship and moved to Houston.”
At the University of Houston, Callies studied dance and mime, but broke his silence when he was tapped as a singer, dancer, and choreographer at The Great Caruso dinner theater in west Houston. After he was car-jacked at Westheimer and Gessner in the mid-’80s, he returned to the Alamo City, which proved to be good timing with SeaWorld San Antonio’s opening on Memorial Day weekend in 1988. Callies performed in its Spooky Kooky Castle before heading back to Houston in 2000 because Broadway producer Stuart Ostrow, Tony Award-winner for 1776 and M. Butterfly, was joining the faculty at the University of Houston.
“I wanted to get my work exposed to him,” explains Callies.
Ostrow, who began his career as an apprentice to songwriter Frank Loesser, surprised Callies by hiring him to choreograph his shows at UH.
In 2007, striking out on his own, Callies returned to Corpus Christi to test a show called Flower Power, which also served as good experience for launching Musical Theatre of Houston with Smokey Joe’s Cafe.
Callies is also looking ahead to next summer when he hopes the group’s second production will be Jesus Christ Superstar.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Jan 14 & 15. Performances take place at 8 p.m., both nights, at the downtown Wortham/Cullen Theatre, 500 Prairie at Texas Ave. Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster (ticketmaster.com). For more information, visit mtohouston.net or call The Musical Theatre of Houston at 832/785-4064.