Performing arts in Hong Kong

Hong Kong rock ’n’ roll jukebox musical will keep fans happy with its string of classic hits

Songs by storied songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to feature in new production, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, with Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock and Stand By Me just some of the famous tunes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 6:19pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 7:43pm

Jukebox musicals built around songs from the rock ’n’ roll era are now ubiquitous in London’s West End and on Broadway. The most successful shows at the box office have been based on hits by hugely popular artists, usually tenuously linked to a preposterous plot.

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Smokey Joe’s Cafe, first staged in 1994, is an anomaly within the genre. It has no plot, no dialogue, and no named characters. But it does have 39 songs, among them some of the most memorable hits of the 1950s and ’60s, all written or co-written with others by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

It is also something of an anomaly on the Hong Kong résumé of Mohamed Drissi, the director and choreographer, whose production of the show is being staged from April 20 to 22 at Hong Kong’s City Hall.

Drissi, founder of musical theatre company Hong Kong 3 Arts Musical Institute, established in 2005, is better known for Cantonese adaptations of Broadway musicals. But he acknowledges that some lyrics simply will not convert. Leiber and Stoller wrote in the distinctively American vernacular of a particular era.

“I saw Smokey Joe’s Cafe some years ago in the US and somehow it stayed in my mind. The songs are all well-known pop numbers, sung by Elvis Presley and other singers, but each tells a story. It’s a fun show, it’s entertaining and it focuses on the voices,” he says.

Leiber and Stoller were a songwriting and record producing team who enjoyed their first decade of chart hits at a time when artists were not expected to write their own material – although the show closer, Stand by Me, was co-written with the singer Ben E. King, and according to Stoller was half King’s work and 25 per cent each his and Leiber’s.

Apart from Presley, whose Leiber and Stoller hits include Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Love Meand Trouble, the partnership wrote extensively for The Coasters and The Drifters, and King as a solo artist. Other artists who covered their songs included The Beatles (Kansas City); The Monkees (D.W. Washburn); and Peggy Lee (I’m a Woman). These songs are all in the show.

Drissi chose a cast of singers who can act, rather than actors who can sing, and they come from a wide range of vocal backgrounds. Angelita Li is a well known jazz performer, Rick Lau is a cabaret artist, and Brian Montgomery is an opera singer.

“Deb Lyons, who was in the Broadway cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe is our vocal coach. She is helping us to get the sound of the original show, which is fantastic, and to help us with the stories in the songs we have our acting coach, Glen Chin, working with the singers,” Drissi says.

Cast member Jordan Cheng Kwan-chi credits Lyons, who also appeared in the London production of the show, with making a decisive difference to the quality of the vocal performances.

“I have a solo number on I Who Have Nothing – it’s a big number and very challenging. Deb has taught me how to get close to the Broadway performance sound and energy level,” he says.

All the music will be performed live by a seven-piece band of local jazz musicians, under the musical direction of Amuer Calderon.

Cheng is among those discovering the breadth of Leiber and Stoller’s work.

“There are so many songs that I’ve heard before on my father’s cassette tapes, but I didn’t know where they came from,” the singer says.

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“Very few local productions have big singing and dancing numbers, but this is really about the joy and celebration of the music of the time. We hope it will be entertaining and fun.”

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Hong Kong Three Arts Musical Theatre, April 20 and 21, 8pm; April 21 and 22, 3pm. Hong Kong City Hall Theatre, HK$240, HK$360 (evening shows); HK$180, HK$300 (matinees). Inquiries: 2291 6357