Teach Me How to Shimmy 

Broadway veteran Patti D'Beck prepares students for the grind of big-theater life with 39 songs and a lot of dance.

click to enlarge art15_theater_smokey_joe_100.jpg

For a dancer and choreographer, it's all about timing. Onstage — and in life, too.

After living in New York City for 35 years and with more than 10 Broadway dance and choreography credits to her name, Patti D'Beck was ready to try something new. Which is when David Leong, Virginia Commonwealth University's theater chair, asked her to come to Richmond to be part of a guest-artist series in 2003.

"Timing was like fate, you know?" D'Beck says.

Coming to Virginia was not a rough transition for her. Originally from Maryland, she says the move was like coming back to her roots. And after that workshop, D'Beck settled right in, joining the VCU theater department and bringing Broadway to Richmond's Park Avenue.

Now she's directing "Smokey Joe's Café." It's the second show D'Beck has directed at VCU, but she's going solo for this one. Writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller packed in a lot of music, including "Jailhouse Rock," "Love Potion #9," "Stand by Me" and "Teach Me How to Shimmy," and D'Beck took it upon herself to rearrange the musical numbers so they made more sense with the story line.

D'Beck says that with 39 songs, the show has music for everyone. She says the new arrangement makes it essentially a musical revue that focuses on the gifts of the cast.

Other adjustments include adding four people to the original cast of nine and, in light of her background as a choreographer, making it a dance-heavy show. D'Beck says the students don't perform many shows with a lot of dance, so by including choreography, she's preparing them for the real world of theater.

During her time on Broadway, D'Beck was a dancer, an understudy and a dance captain for shows like "Grease," "A Chorus Line" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." But she also had a hand behind the scenes, as well, with the business side, so her role as director of "Smokey Joe's Café" was an easy switch.

Outside of VCU, D'Beck is active within the community. Last year, she and Leong worked with Team XL/XXL, an after-school scholarship class working with students from the Minds in Motion group, a Richmond Ballet youth program.

She says she enjoyed her time there, but the biggest reward is watching the students go through the learning process. But with 39 songs to perform, it sounds like a test of endurance, too. S

"Smokey Joe's Café" at VCU's Singleton Center Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. with a 3 p.m. Sunday matinee. Through April 21. Tickets are $5-$18. 828-6026.

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