Thursday, 4 May 2017

Joni's classic discs spin fun in Circle Game

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night &
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

The cast claps & strums & rocks Joni Mitchell's stuff with full-on pizazz.  Emily Cooper photo.
L-R Kimmy Choi, Sara Vickruck, Rowen Kahn, Scott Perrie, David Z. Cohen, Adriana Ravalli.
From the footlights :  My favourite moment of Joni Mitchell is the wild, zany lyrical laugh she chortles forth at the end of her original recording of the iconic "Big Yellow Taxi". Since first hearing it in 1970, I've always thought she was warning listeners : never ever take yourself too seriously. Whether you're lamenting a relationship that's crashed-&-burned or farmers using DDT or the countless miles of blacktar macadam that pave paradise everywhere, always stay centred, keep calm & carry on, never lose your laugh lest you lose your grip.

Indeed, it seemed almost as if Joni was challenging us from the get-go of her professional career to always re-imagine ourselves and our messages. Check ourselves from the moment we thrust our heartfelt p.o.v.'s on an unsuspecting universe. Such seems, too, to have been a kernel of the thought behind co-creators Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman for their unique show Circle Game : Re-imagining the Music of Joni Mitchell that opened tonight and runs at the Firehall through May 20.

Six musicians, 18 instruments, 28 Mitchell songs, over 100 minutes of millennial out-takes on Mitchell's singular music and lyrics : pray tell what does a cigarette-smoking flower child of the 60's with her acoustic guitar and odd free-form chord-licks have to tell contemporary audiences raised on hip-hop / electro-pop and Facebook.

How it's all put together : Mitchell's "Circle Game" ["We're captive on the carousel of time"] was and will always be a popular theme among Boomers. Who of us hasn't swooned over F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby that ends "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Or ached to balladeer Harry Chapin's "All my life's a circle" plaintive lament. Or, like Jennifer Anniston, shed a tear over Sara Bareille's passionate version of "Both Sides Now" sung at the 2017 Oscars in memoriam to Prince, Carrie Fisher, Mary Tyler Moore et al who recently passed on and left Hollywood the poorer for it. (By comparison, Canadian opera soprano Measha Brueggergosman's version of "Both Sides Now" at Joni's 70th birthday bash was done in full-on diva-warble style -- Yipes! -- my ears-&-nerves have yet to fully recover...).

The intent then of Re-Imagining, according to its creators, is to try to wrest from Mitchell's music and her lyrics a way to cycle back 70's themes -- eco-angst, feminist-&-personal liberation, love-&-loss, the joys of village and the magnetism of community -- in a way that contemporary audiences can relate to. (Context : Mitchell's website reminds how she and Phil Ochs and James Taylor all performed at a 1970 Pacific Coliseum benefit by the Don't Make A Wave Committee that raised $17,000 for the fledgling protest group Greenpeace.)

Huge social concerns back in the day to Mitchell's generation, many of these issues were pushed aside as Boomers became co-opted by the pursuit of personal wealth, family, security. (Even the infamous 1960's street theatre anarchist Yippie Jerry Rubin donned a tailored suit, became an early Apple investor and was a millionaire by 1980.)

Shades of Red Rock Diner were part of this "re-imagining" of Joni Mitchell's folky songs.  Emily Cooper photo.
Meanwhile the "pussy power" protest march in Washington, DC and elsewhere after the inauguration of USA's Apprentice President is a sign of renewed, if belated, political interest by progressives emerging from the Millennial ranks. The imminent end of peak oil and the rise of Elon Musk household power packs -- for everyone by 2030 he claims -- is another hopeful sign that certain themes Mitchell championed 50 years back are again au courant.

And thus the hook of her music. In a 1994 Mojo interview Mitchell observed without false modesty or irony : "What I realize now is that songs like 'Circle Game' and 'Big Yellow Taxi' have almost become nursery rhymes, they've become part of the culture." Quite so.

What the show brings to the stage : Firehall's supplied photos reveal once more how "every picture tells a story". In design Circle Game is a cabaret show / garage band / college theatre buddies jam session. There is no true dramatic narrative thread or arc or plot, rather a series of musical snippets and stanzas and whole songs mostly from Mitchell's early oeuvre that are stitched together to please eye & ear & mind. Fully two hours of visual and audial juice that endear and excite.

The first three numbers, interleafed, were "Free Man In Paris", "Help Me" and "Both Sides Now", all of which reflect the ever-recurrent Mitchell themes of personal freedom -vs- commitment -vs- life's illusions / heartbreaks. (Is there a better lyric on the subject of freedom than the feisty young independent soul who finds himself "unfettered and alive"? I think not.)

Production values that shine : The set decor, from personal experience, might easily have been culled from the "Kalamazoo '68" school of design. Functional hanging-spots for the show's myriad instruments, overstuffed armchairs and piano furniture aligning the 30-foot deep, 65-foot proscenium. Perpendicular performance platforms mid-stage, strings of Xmas lights, even the requisite faux-Victorian / Tiffany glass lampshade so popular back in the day. Underneath a swack of Persian-cum-paisley throw rugs higgledy-piggledy cast about just like I remember them. Set designer Carolyn Rapanos must have consulted countless family photograph albums to create such verisimilitude.

Considerable imagination by lighting designer Ian Schimpf to re-create ("re-imagine") what the 60's-70's youthful digs and garage hang-outs would produce by way of rheostat controls. Longtime Arts Club sound designer Geoff Hollingshead brings his rock experiences from staging Buddy : The Buddy Holly Story into effective use in Circle Game, no question. The mixes of electric and acoustic and electrified acoustic pick-up guitar were choice.

Performers Sara Vickruck, Adriana Ravalli  & Kimmy Choi belt out a rock song together.   Emily Cooper photo.
Acting pin-spots :  Particular numbers stand out. Ravalli and Cohen's duet of "Case of You" with a guitar perched horizontally across their knees almost made me forget Dianna Krall's signature version from her album Live in Paris. Their snuggly smooch at song's end seemed more real than stagey. 

Scott Perrie's lengthy moody version of "Free Man in Paris" to start Act 2 was by itself reason to go see this show. The duet mix of "The River" with "Both Sides Now" -- reminiscent of Israel Kamakawiwo-ole's blend of "Over The Rainbow" with "It's A Wonderful World" -- was transcendent. 

And the trio cut of "Big Yellow Taxi" with all the harmonized atonal riffs to make it 2017-y was the 3rd major hi-lite of the night for me. The talent of this troupe was simply stupendous for the most part. 

For their parts directors & creators Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman are utterly synergistic in their creativity. Cohen's brilliance deconstructing and reconstructing Mitchell's musical lines was matched every step of the way, lit.& fig., by Kuman's blocking and choreography and stage business. While a couple of numbers struck my ear as longish, by and large this was seldom-witnessed dramatic inspiration. Mostly in how a-sequential the music was -- how un-hitched & re-hitched & repeated & hinted-at & revived contrapuntally Mitchell's music and lyrics became over the night. 

Who gonna like : As noted up top, Mitchell has produced "music to my ears" (Sorry!) for nigh unto 50 years. While maybe not a Leonard Cohen versifier, she brings her painter's eye to her musician's ear and the results are often just stunning. The skill of Andrew Cohen to pick her music apart verse-by-verse and song-by-song and stitch it all back together in a whole new whimsical tapestry is to marvel at. 

The talent on display at Firehall's production, many of them in the early stages of their professional careers, will no doubt add you to the standing-o squad that surrounded me last night. Hard to surmise, but I would bet a person who'd never heard a lick of Joni Mitchell's music-&-lyrics who caught this show would thrill at what they see. 

Rich, creative, extremely nuanced and robustly "re-imagined" stuff that sings sweetly of age-old themes and anxieties and hopes. I'd go again in a heartbeat.

Particulars : Co-creators, conspirators, directors (and spouses) : Andrew Cohen & Anna Kuman.  Produced by the Firehall Arts Centre.  At the FAC, Gore @ Cordova.  On until May 20th.  Run-time 90 minutes including intermission.  Tickets and schedule info  @ FAC website or FACBO 604.689.0926.

Production team : Directors Andrew Cohen & Anna Kuman.  Musical Director & Arranger Andrew Cohen.  Set Designer Carolyn Rapanos.  Costume Designer Jessie Van Rijn.  Lighting Designer Ian Schimpf.  Sound Designer Geoff Hollingshead. 

Performers / musicians :  Kimmy Choi.  David Z. Cohen (Yes! Andrew's younger bro.)  Rowen Kahn.  Scott Perrie.  Adriana Ravalli.  Sara Vickruck. 

Addendum : Joni Mitchell's name became "new news" four years back when she turned 70. Radio stations from Zeballos to East Sidealia played her stuff plus the myriad covers other singers & groups have performed over the years. (The JM website notes there have been 403 individual covers of "Big Yellow Taxi", for example.)

These idiosyncratic nuances about Joni Mitchell emerged around that time : that she met her birth daughter for the first time, age 32, in 1997 after Joni had given her up for adoption in 1965 named "Kelly Dale Anderson" -- since reunion her name has changed to Kilauren Gibb; that @ 70 Joni still smoked cigarettes (the chief subject matter of  a UK Daily Independent news article back in 2007, believe that or not); that in April 2015 Joni suffered a brain aneurism in L.A. and could not talk. [She attended Elton John's 70th six weeks ago, arriving in a wheelchair but quite able to walk & smile & communicate.]


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