Langham Court Theatre

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This Cast is on Fire – Chelsea Hotel – by Alisa Gordaneer

Chelsea Hotel
The Belfry
To November 15

By Alisa Gordaneer

You must remember it well, that song called “Chelsea Hotel”—it’s so famous, its words are a legend … which makes it an ideal hinge for a musical based on it, and a couple dozen more iconic tunes by the great master of Canadian melancholy, Mr. Leonard Cohen.21843374256_f2c8d2f0af_z

Gathering the songs of a renowned performer, and stringing them together into a musical, isn’t a new idea. Take Always…Patsy Cline, or The Buddy Holly Story, or the frothy ABBA tribute Mamma Mia! as just three quick examples of shows that have done just that, to tremendous accolades. It’s clear that when audiences love the oeuvre, there’s no reason not to love a fresh new interpretation of it, no matter how thinly threaded the storyline might be.

In this case, director and choreographer Tracy Power, who conceived of the show for Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre, had rich material to work with. Cohen’s lyrics are poetic, pithy, ironic and deeply sexy—a complex plot would only tangle their beauty into something too contrived to be enjoyable. As such, the narrative remains simple—a creatively blocked writer, played by Jonathan Gould, scratches away over the course of a long sleepless night in his drafty garret (presumably in that very same Chelsea Hotel). As he revisits memories, mostly of past loves won and lost, Cohen’s songs provide the landscape for reminiscence, with visits from the “Sisters of Mercy” and “Suzanne” to saying “So Long, Marianne.” The show draws on newer and older lyrics, some more and some less familiar, and some so familiar—like the spectacularly iconic and endlessly covered “Hallelujah,” which Cohen famously requested a moratorium on a few years back—their reinvention in this context is a delightful change of pace.

The show’s success relies heavily on the considerable strengths of its multitalented performers, and each of them not only plays one or more instruments, but takes a turn in the spotlight, presumably as the muses of our central figure. Marlene Ginader’s violin playing — and her sweet-voiced rendition of “If it Be Your Will” — is pure heartstrings, while Lauren Bowler’s raunchy rockout of “First We Take Manhattan” draws out the song’s subtexts to create a disturbingly powerful interpretation. Kudos to Power for subtly infusing the mood with historic but not overly blatant references to the eras in which the songs were written—“Suzanne” is all hippie love and craziness, while “Closing Time” hits on 1990s weirdness.

Some of the reinventions work better than others—“I’m Your Man” creates an odd kind of gender-bending when sung by a woman, but “One of Us Cannot be Wrong” is fresh and bizarrely hilarious when performed as a duet by Bowler and Rachel Aberle. And Benjamin Elliott’s multi-instrumentalism adds layers of sound that build this into a whole new leve of harmonic convergence. Did I mention these performers sing beautifully? As an ensemble, this cast is on fire. Fuelled by Cohen’s lyrics, they’re transcendently incendiary.

21681486440_e238d9d97d_kAll this heat takes place on a single, cleverly conceived set designed by Marshall McMahen. Evocative of the garret of that tragically blocked songwriter, it’s all crumpled paper and moody graffiti, its walls and floors inscribed subtly but noticeably with touchstone lyrics like “It’s written on the walls of this hotel, you go to heaven once you’ve been to hell.” (That’s from “Paper Thin Hotel,” by the way, and in this production’s raunchy interpretation, the words stand up to being half-spoken by Gould even better than being sung.)

The costumes, designed by Barbara Clayden, must also be noticed. Inscribed with lyrics, they evoke “rags and feathers” and poetically torn hearts from sleeves.

This show hits a sweet spot between fresh and familiar, creating a new skin for that old ceremony of staying up all night, listening to Cohen’s songs and brooding about loves lost and won and lost again. Pulling this all together, even in a half-coherent way, would be enough. But this show goes a step further, in performance and production. I won’t say how the performance ends, but when you hear it, you’ll probably agree: it’s note-perfect.