Thursday, 18 December 2014

Cohen cabaret Chelsea Hotel cleverly captures 
the man & his music

Quick take : Leonard Cohen's musical poetry will once again astound you and steal your heart at the Firehall Theatre's fourth reprise of Chelsea Hotel. As they did a year back, six song-&-dance troupers weave a clever tapestry showing us Cohen-the-man, Cohen-the-loaner, Cohen-the-hustler. Melancholy, loss, romantic dread and love's wreckage are never far from the tip of Cohen's quill & inkwell. That's why a famous NYC hotel that's tattered and torn is the perfect backdrop for his stories put to song.

Redux : Leonard & Janis :  Vancouver's Tracey Power conceived, scripted, directed and choreographed the show as well as performs in it this year. She must be as exhausted as she is exhilarated. She pitches the story on an endlessly re-written Cohen storyline, "Chelsea Hotel #2". In it LC recalls a night of sharp drugs and limp sex with Janis Joplin.

As Cohen sings it he's enjoying some wee-biddy fellatio from JJ to the hum of streetscape chirps & sirens below. "You told me again you preferred handsome men / but for me you would make an exception / And clenching your fist for the ones like us / who are oppressed by the figures of beauty / You fixed yourself, and you said / 'Well never mind, / we are ugly but we have the music.'" Janis explained it somewhat differently in a 1969 Texas interview. She maintained Cohen "gave me nothing" the night in question. Then quickly added : "I don't know what that means. Maybe it just means (he was) on a bummer."

Power's power unclenched : Power's cabaret format features some two dozen Cohen songs in whole and in bits, intermingled and refrained again-&-again (e.g. "I am the one who loves / Changing from nothing to one.") The plotline works but is a bit wimpy : unless you like hearing all about writers who write about writers having writer's block. "Script constipation" I call it. And chitty-chat of same should be off-limits just like the bathroom kind. Still, Marshall McMahen's clever set rescues the scene : Kayvon Kelly, writer manque, emerges from a mountain of scrunched-up poetry and song lyric detritus piled high and wide. Classic Cohen, this. The sufferer championing his angst and dread. Words not only fail him but taunt and defeat him altogether. Stacks and stacks of them.

Kelly shares the stage with five other actor musicians. Three women -- Power, Rachel Aberle, and Marlene Ginader are the lost / abandoned / forsaken loves who are central to Cohen's world : Suzanne, Marianne and Jane. Along with Kelly, Benjamin Elliott and the show's musical director Steve Charles join the women in this two-hour bittersweet musical caper. Once again I was doubly amused by "I'm Your Man" that this year features Power prancing about in a bedsheet blowing a kazoo. How could I not remember the Sigmund Freud vignette : the good Dr. puffing away on one of his signature stogies during a lecture. After sucking in a good mouthful off the thing, Freud released it ever-so-slowly and lovingly from his lips. With a wee grin he proclaimed : "And it's also a cigar!"

Throughout the show the women sing songs designed by Cohen to be for men about or to the women in their lives. But these days gender is more a matter of preference, choice and public declaration. Out-of-the-womb biology is less relevant. So who sings what to whom works regardless. Analogous to the basement bathroom markers at the Firehall : one with pants, one with a skirt, and one 1/2-pant \ 1/2 skirt on each door.

The songs tell the tales : Fortunately not all of the songs in Chelsea Hotel have the same tempo and tone and melancholia of Cohen's oh-so-famous lost lover laments. Musical director Charles jazzes up LC's tunes to make them a lot less "drone-y" than he is famous for. Surprise stylings galore pop off Charles' arranger's notepad, notably the chirpily up-tempo "Closing Time". "Suzanne" countrified with cello and banjo was a treat. As last year, the layered harmonies of "Marianne" were tight tight tight. And I can never tire of "First We Take Manhattan" done in 2:2 rock double time. More whimsical and less Teutonic than Jennifer Warnes' famous cover of it with its jackboot heel-clicks echoing underneath.

Indeed, it's the cabaret collection of cover songs deconstructed from Cohen's originals that are then re-synthasized with a dizzying array of instruments : banjo, accordion, tambourine, blues harp (a.k.a. harmonica), double acoustic bass, electric bass, violin, cello, electric guitars, acoustic guitar with pick-up mic, drums, ukulele, keyboard piano and organ and if my ears didn't deceive, an off-stage mandolin plink'd once or twice for good measure. Each of the cast play a slew of these instruments in this talent jamboree of theirs.

Poor ol' Lenny, gotta love him : The leitmotif of Leonard Cohen's lyrics and poetry is always rejection, loss, hoped-for redemption. "I cannot follow you, my love / You cannot follow me. / I am the distance you put between / All of the moments that we will be" he mourns. Reminiscent of Dave Matthews' haunting song "The Space Between". Love is real, physical, metaphysical and lyrical always. "Now I am too thin and your love is too vast." Or, "Lover come back to me [repeated seven times] / Let me start again, I cried." Which of course is but the flip-side to "I know from your eyes and your smile / Tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine / For awhile." Or this priceless line : "I heard of a saint who loved you / He taught that the duty of lovers / Is to tarnish the Golden Rule" -- done richly and memorably by Kelly and Power. 

Indeed, LC's entire oeuvre is what I would term "universal self-indulgence". It's that universality in our common western 1st- world experiences that rescues some lyrics from a bend toward banality. 

Music highlights : To start the second act Kelly sings "Chelsea Hotel #2" with a clarity and sensitivity and poignancy and subtlety I quite frankly don't remember him achieving a year ago. He does the same at show's end with "Bird on a Wire" with its romantic opener "Like a bird on a wire / Or a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free...". Bravo!

Another of my favourite Charles arrangements was "That's No Way To Say Good-bye". The Cowboy Junkies style is spot on with string bass and banjo. Superb stuff. Many of the exchanges musically and dramatically are very touching between Kelly and Ginader as various iterations of Cohen's star-crossed lovers. 

For his part, Elliott at moments almost steals the show acting as Kayvon's muse and conscience. Aberle and Power choreograph well indeed the twin angels / devils forever teasing and taunting the show's self-absorbed cad of a protagonist. Steve Charles' singing and string-play throughout are champion. The cacophonous "Hallelujah!" at the end starts off wonderfully jarring, then resolves into its original melodious self to finish off.

Production values : Once again Power's choreography was clever, engaging and utterly in synch with the McMahen set. No corner of the homey Firehall stage was left out of the exuberant action. Designer Barbara Clayden stitched together an eclectic mix of plain-jane off-the-rack twills and Converse runners plus circus get-ups and cocktail waitress black-&-whites and funky ribbon'd hair for lover Ginader. The white-face make-up throughout on most of the cast added a neat thematic hue. Ted Roberts' lighting aided all the right moves at all the right times. Slight mic-ing sound balance problems in act one -- Ms. Power's mic particularly all but screeched. But problem solved by Act 2. 

Who gonna like : No doubt there are scores of folks who find Leonard Cohen's writing not only self-indulgent but mawkish and melodramatic. I am not one of those. Tracey Power's script produced by Donna Spencer is a true joy to watch jump into action.  Chelsea Hotel is entertainment that not only excites and thrills both eye and ear, it displays all the verve and spunk and spice of Vancouver's rising stars of the future. Move over, Boomers, the next wonderful wave of stage performers is not only at the door but right in front of you in a Must see! performance.

Particulars : Chelsea Hotel : The Songs of Leonard Cohen at the Firehall Arts Centre theatre, 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore), until January 3, 2015, Box Office 604.689.0926.

Production Team : Artistic Director / Producer Donna Spencer.  Creator / Director / Choreographer Tracey Power.  Musical Director and Arranger Steven Charles.  Set Designer Marshall McMahen.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden. Lighting Designer Ted Roberts.  Sound Designer Xavier Berbudeau.  Stage Manager Jaimie Tait.  Apprentice Stage Manager Emma Hammond.  Assistant Stage Manager Jillian Perry.

Featured Actors :  Rachel Aberle.  Steve Charles.  Marlene Ginader.  Tracey Power. Ben Elliott.  Kayvon Kelly.

Appendices :  

The Vancouver connection in the Janis / Cohen story

The dubious get-on between Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen occurred shortly after Janis's final Big Brothers and the Holding Company concert here in Vancouver at the Coliseum in October, '68. The band formally dissolved at midnight. Warm-up for them that night was a newbie group called Chicago Transit Authority. Their big-band instrumentals, reminiscent of David Clayton Thomas's Blood, Sweat & Tears, excited the crowd. Soon CTA would become, simply, Chicago, after the actual bus & elevated train company CTA sued them over name copywright. Personally I enjoyed the band CTA much more than I did Big Brother : Janis was uber-pissy on a quart of Southern Comfort bourbon, a x3 or x4 margin above her normal altitude and cruising speed. I can still hear the words "Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz" : they sounded mushy, sort of like "Lorne, wonja buy me a moozhiging frien'?". It wouldn't be long before Janis' last moozhiging frien' was a needle stick in a 2nd class L.A. motel room.

Backdrop to the show's title

The Chelsea Hotel in NYC has been a famous and favourite drop-in home for artists of all sorts ever since it opened back in 1885 and was, for one brief shining moment, NYC's tallest building. Joni Mitchell's chipper & cheery "Chelsea Morning" gave the place rock start status, though its fame had earlier been marked, darkly, when poet Dylan Thomas died there on a grey November day in 1953 after bragging about the 17 or 18 or 19 whiskies he'd just finished polishing off at his favourite watering hole the White Horse Tavern up the street. 

The 250-room 12-storey Victorian gothic with iron brocade balconies gained further notoriety when punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death there in 1978. (Out on bail, Vicious himself would die in Greenwich Village of a heroin overdose just five months later. The investigation into the murder in Room 100 at The Chelsea was promptly abandoned by NYPD and never proven or solved.)

Cohen stayed at The Chelsea in the late 60's along with Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, when Cohen was chasing them around The Big Smoke to absorb their genius. This was around the time the Canadian National Film Board championed the emerging Montreal persona. His metier was poetry in those days that he shared both in books and in coffee house gigs. The NFB put out a 16mm black-&-white bio-pic I used to show my senior high English students, Ladies and Gentlemen : Introducing Mr. Leonard Cohen. Clever and amusing, the flick includes Cohen bathing in a clawfoot tub at a seedy Montreal hotel while he smirks at the lens and writes the words caveat emptor on the bathroom wall as a kind of warning to viewers about all this precious fooferaw over him. But music was bursting in Cohen's breast, too, not just poetry, and NYC was where those times were a-happenin' and a-changin'. 

Best description of the hotel from Cohen's time there came from someone named Nicola L. in a 2013 Vanity Fair article by Nathaniel Rich entitled "Where The Walls Still Talk". Quoth she : "Anything could happen... It was either Janis Joplin or the big woman from the Mamas and Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I can't remember which. It was a crazy time." 

"Hallelujah" out-take : 

Cohen's iconic 1984 spellbinder "Hallelujah" reportedly had some 80 (!) original verses to it. After years of slashing and re-writing, Cohen managed to bring it down to just seven. Its final two verses perhaps say all Cohen himself might, ultimately, want to conclude about his life as a writer and performer:

"There's a blaze of light in every word / It doesn't matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.../ I did my best...I've told the truth...And even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before The Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

k.d. lang's performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is probably unmatchable among some 300 other covers of the song that media journals report as having been recorded, one of the more recent by Rufus Wainwright in his best-hits album "Vibrate" from last year. 


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