What: Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen
Where: Belfry Theatre
When: To Nov. 15
Rating: 4 1/2 (out of five)
Weaving stage shows around the hits of baby-boomer music legends is a clever way to attract the punters. Take, for instance, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical or Baby It’s You! (Shirelles) or We Will Rock You (Queen).
Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen seems another shrewd choice. Boomers adore the Patron Saint of Romantic Melancholy. In fact, many believe 81-year-old Cohen, like a vintage Bordeaux, gets only better with age.
I certainly didn’t go to Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen expecting a cash grab. But I confess my pre-show expectation was in the neighbourhood of a lukewarm theatrical tribute. What a welcome surprise, then, to discover this production — conceived and directed by Tracey Power — is a bona fide pleasure.
Essentially a musical revue wrapped around a wafer-thin narrative, Chelsea Hotel benefits from highly innovative musical arrangements (courtesy of performer Steven Charles), talented multi-instrumentalists who can act, sing and dance — and Power’s cheeky direction and choreography. The whole thing has a peppery Weill-Brecht-Brel panache (yes, there is an accordion). The boho-Euro approach is perhaps a bit predictable, yet in practice it works well.
In Chelsea Hotel, Cohen’s wistful melodies and poetic lyrics seem revitalized and occasionally even reborn thanks to the beauty and boldness of the interpretations. Fans will enjoy it, so will those unfamiliar with Cohen’s vast catalogue.
It’s set in a dream-like hotel room, the Chelsea presumably. Leprotic wallpaper the colour of flypaper (and covered with handwriting) peels off in chunks. In one corner, a mountain of balled up writing paper (the tower of song?) reaches the ceiling, with one end of a bed poking out.
The room is inhabited by a tousle-haired scribe, well sung by Jonathan Gould, who seems to struggle with writer’s block and/or a debilitating case of existential angst. He’s visited by three women and two men in white pancake makeup. They dispense angelic harmonies and expertly switch among drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, violin, cello, banjo, accordion — even kazoos that look like cigars.
Who are these mysterious presences dressed in bedsheets, corsets, fishnets and suspendered pantaloons. Are they figments of the writer’s fevered (and booze-fuelled, judging by the whisky bottle) imagination? Or are they real?
It doesn’t matter particularly. For in Chelsea Hotel, the music is the message. Among the show’s highlights:
• Take This Waltz: Cohen’s ditty about pretty women, Vienna and death is enlivened by the terrific facial expressions and gestures of a mustachioed Benjamin Elliott, who, throughout the show, is such an accomplished performer it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
• Suzanne: The uber-romantic love song is reinvented as a jaunty banjo outing that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Mumford & Sons concert (it slips a bit when the song, which references rivers, has performers pretending to row — happily such literalism is rare in the show).
• First We Take Manhattan: Cohen’s call to arms is transformed into a rock song goosed along by overdriven organ and frenetic high-hat figures. At the end, perhaps as a show of solidarity, a girl shoves her red panties into the writer’s trouser pocket.
• Sisters of Mercy: It’s now a cutey-pie dance routine featuring “sisters” Marlene Ginader, Lauren Bowler and Rachel Aberle. Is this approach too literal? Nope. Not when the Sisters of Mercy are dancing and singing “Bop, bop, bop!” à la 1960s girl groups.
• Paper Thin Hotel: Orgasmic moans and groans punctuate this song about the voyeuristic overhearing of between-the-sheets shenanigans.
• Hallelujah: Happily, earnestness is avoided when this much-covered song of praise starts as jagged punk-rock ditty. There’s a detour to Bird on a Wire before Hallelujah is reprised in a more traditional manner to conclude the evening.
While the company has much naughty fun with the music, care is taken to ensure the lyrics can be heard. It’s a pleasure to experience the cleverness and depth of Cohen’s poetry over two hours (including intermission). Often, the guilty pleasure his overwrought romanticism provides is undercut by ironic humour. Typical are these lines from Chelsea Hotel #2: “You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you would make an exception.”