Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
In a sharp-angled room piled high with crumpled papers, there is writing on the walls, a guitar in one corner, a bottle of liquor on a wooden table (which later transforms into a keyboard). The lights flicker off and on. A youngish man, casually dressed, enters, sits down at the table, writes a few words; and then crumples another paper. Suddenly, there is a burst of accordion music. A man in cabaret costume and white makeup breaks into the room, followed by women in chamber-maid outfits, and musicians with bass, violin, drums. Welcome to the Chelsea Hotel
‘The Chelsea’ is an 1885 New York City landmark that has long-term hosted Dylan; Sam Shepard; Janis Joplin and Iggy Pop et.al is featured in Leonard Cohen’s song, “I remember you well/in the Chelsea Hotel”. Don’t hesitate to see this production. The performers in Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, now playing at Theatre Passe Muraille, are pure alchemy, transforming the twenty-seven songs into physical, sensual, surrealistic and emotional theatre and dance. This is what real artists do with classic songs; re-imagine them while keeping the spirit of the original.
Even the previews have been crammed with people of all ages in keeping with the sold-run across western Canada. In an interview with Matt Galloway on CBC Radio 1’s Metro-Morning, on Feb. 4, director/ choreographer, Tracey Powell, said she wanted the show to be a “welcoming circus.” In conceiving the piece, Powell did create a circus, a cabaret, and an artist’s garret, as the songwriter’s mind is brought to life on stage. Powell also performs in the show, delivering a memorable “Suzanne,” among other numbers. Rachel Aberle, Sean Cronin, Cristina Cuglietta, Ben Elliott, and Jonathan Gould also turned in talented performances. Steven Charles did a wonderful job with the musical direction and arrangements.
Gould is appealing and mercurial in his portrayal of poet/song-writer Cohen. Elliot appears as his alter-ego, guru, and guide. The women are seductive, saucy, and tender. It was interesting to hear “I’m Your Man” performed by Aberle, Powell, and Cuglietta, with the poet looking on. For the song, “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Gould and Cuglietta (wearing the famous coat) perform a beautiful embodiment of the story, while Cronin sings and plays a haunting, lyrical version.
There is no story-line; one song flows into the next, but this is definitely a charted journey. One of the show’s refrains, inscribed on the set, “It’s written on the walls of this hotel/You go to Heaven/Once you’ve been to Hell,” takes us to an emotional land- and-sea-scape. It is sensual, sometimes bawdy, sometimes tender, sacred and profane, loving and angry, sad and funny, personal and political.
The theatrical elements work together to create a kind of magic. Roses to Barbara Clayden’s costumes, Marshall McMahen’s set, Ted Roberts’ lighting, and to stage manager, Jaimie Tait and her crew, who skillfully handle the production’s brilliant pace. And if you hear a woman in line at the supermarket humming “Sisters of Mercy,” that would be me—hoping Leonard will bring in my groceries. Don’t hesitate to see this production.