Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen
Directed and conceived by Tracey Power
Starring Jonathan Gould
Theatre Passe Muraille
Two and a half stars
One Night Only: The Greatest Musical Never Written
Improvised by and starring Ashley Botting, Jan Caruana, Carly Heffernan, Reid Janisse, Ron Pederson and Alex Tindal
Directed by Melody Johnson
Three and a half stars
There are two unusual musical theatre options on the menu in Toronto at the moment. Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, a creation of director and choreographer Tracey Power, has been playing to sell-out audiences since it was created at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver in 2012. It has now arrived at Theatre Passe Muraille as a presentation of Theatre 20.
A Cohen-esque poet and songwriter (Jonathan Gould) sits in a room in the Chelsea Hotel – where it is written on the walls that "you go to heaven once you've been to hell." Amid mounds of crumpled-up paper, this figure is visited by visions – two men, three women, all in white makeup, who seem to be ghosts, demons, muses, past lovers and possessed puppets. This sextet acts, sings, dances and play all the instruments in a two-hour concert-cabaret that wends its way from Suzanne to Hallelujah.
To this Cohen fan, the whole enterprise seemed a mismatch of aesthetics. Cohen's wry humour is undermined by the broad clowning; the wit of his lyrics clashes with the whimsy of the Marshall McMahen and Barbara Clayden designs; his poetry is undercut by overly literal choreography; and the sexiness of the songs is often sabotaged by the silliness of the staging. What can I say: Kazoos shaped like cigars don't scream Cohen to me.
But an overly frenetic first half gives way to a more palatable second as the characters become less hazily defined. The most resonant moments are the stillest ones, such as Sean Cronin's straightforward, sad singing of Famous Blue Raincoat. (Still, did we need the umbrellas?) Gould's singing is the solidest of an uneven bunch. "I was born like this, I had no choice – I was born with the gift of a golden voice," he says with melisma, the joke lost, but made up for in musicality. The audience members next to me on opening night seemed delirious about the whole affair.
I had a better time at One Night Only: The Greatest Musical Never Written, currently renting space at the Factory Theatre. Six improvisers (alumni of Second City or Mad TV all), two backup singers and a five-piece band make up a tune on the spot based on audience suggestions. Poorly executed, this could be excruciating. But this is a well-assembled troupe for long-form musical improv – with the whip-smart Jan Caruana and sensitive Alex Tindal mining emotional truth, and Ron Pederson and Reid Janisse letting loose as smarty-pants clowns. (Ashley Botting and Carly Heffernan round out the cast.)
The night I went, the suggested setting was Momofuku, a trendy noodle bar – which sparked of a musical romance that was also a very funny satire of the city's foodie culture. Caruana lifted every scene up a level – and the band led by Jordan Armstrong on keyboard showed off equally impressive improvisational skills. I can't speak for any future performance, of course.