I THINK I’M FALLIN’: THE SONGS OF JONI MITCHELL
Where: The Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Nov. 2-26
Tickets: Pay What You Can from tickets.belfry.bc.ca or 250-385-6815
Bankable musical productions do not materialize out of thin air, and require years of tweaks and adjustments. Just ask U2, Phil Collins, and Paul Simon, who all flubbed miserably with Broadway song-and-dance showcases they created.
I Think I’m Fallin’: The Songs of Joni Mitchell was a step ahead of its competitors, in that regard. When it arrived in 2016, it drew audiences and applause, thanks to the wide expanse of Mitchell’s catalogue. With actors playing characters borne from the songs, the tribute — created in Victoria specifically for The Belfry by composer Tobin Stokes and director Michael Shamata — eschews convention by using only Mitchell’s music and lyrics in which to tell the story.
It was a genius move, to the point where it could almost be considered unfair. The nine-time Grammy Award winner, a native of Fort Macleod, Alberta, is a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honour, and is consistently ranked as one of the best songwriters in history. In March, she was awarded The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, for her lifetime contributions to popular music.
“She’s a songwriter who can put things into words that are so surprising but inevitable,” says actor-musician Anton Lipovetsky, who appears in I Think I’m Fallin’.
“She writes about her life so specifically, but when I listen to the songs, I feel like she’s talking about me and my life. The best songwriters do that.”
In recent years, Mitchell has come to represent something deified, and entirely unto herself. Her fortitude in the face of ongoing health issues (which stem from a 2015 brain aneurysm) has created an aura of infallibility and perseverance, and that led to numerous concert tributes, featuring everyone from Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Herbie Hancock to Diana Krall, Graham Nash, and James Taylor.
Mitchell has also begun performing again, after officially retiring from the stage more than a decade earlier. “I remember the last time [The Belfry staged I Think I’m Fallin’ in 2016], it didn’t seem like much of an option that she would come back to performing,” Lipovetsky said. “But she’s having this return and it’s really heartening. The timing is realty great for the show.”
The production is propped up by a cast of working musicians, including Lipovetsky, Linda Kidder, and Jonathan Gould, who all appeared in the 2016 production (Hannah Mazurek and Chelsea Rose are new additions). The musical features some of her best-known work, but none of the singer-actors are aping Mitchell’s voice or mannerisms. Lipovetsky said it was his job as musical director to ensure the songs felt authentic to each member of the cast.
“We’re always trying to make it tighter, more impactful,” he said. “But one of the goals is to separate the songs from her recordings and performances. In our show, what we try to do is create a narrative and reveal the emotional truths in the words as they stand on their own. When the songs are stripped down, I feel you really hear the poetry in this naked and new way.”
When the musical debuted, Lipovetsky was 26 — the same age Mitchell was when she wrote two of her most well-known hits, Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock. With seven years of personal and professional experience betwen the two productions, Lipovetsky said he now views the piece — and many of the songs therein — much differently today. The meaning of songs like The Circle Game, Mitchell’s song about “the wonder of aging,” for example, have deepened, he said. Perspectives have shifted.
For that reason alone, I Think I’m Fallin’ has been left largely untouched in the seven years since it premiered. Only the song Two Grey Rooms, from Mitchell’s 1991 album, Night Ride Home, has been added to the tracklisting of the remount.
“Normally, a musical like this can be scary,” Lipovetsky said. “But knock on wood, it feels like we’re really prepared. We’re really ready for the audience.”