If there's a problem with Leonard Cohen (and let's be clear – there isn't), it's that the absolute magnificence of his poetry can disappear into the familiarity of his songs. You remember the words, but with repetition, forget about their brilliance. Put the songs into another context, and the genius leaps out at you, once again.
Such was the case Wednesday night, at the world premiere of Chelsea Hotel at Vancouver's Firehall Arts Centre. Conceived and directed by Tracey Power ( Ordinary Genius), the script is composed entirely of Cohen's music and poetry, woven into a loose story.
A tortured writer (we know he's tortured – or at least having some serious trouble in the writing department – even before we see him, based on the mounds of scrunched up pieces of paper in the room) is visited by an ethereal group of two men and three women, one of whom is or was and certainly still wants to be his lover. He will break her heart (look, it's Leonard Cohen, I'm not spoiling anything by telling you there's heartbreak ahead) but in the process, will he find his writer's voice?
We're not sure if this is a dream, a vision, something his imagination has conjured up to aid the writing process, or perhaps his memory acting out actual events. In fact, the story (such as it is) doesn't become clear until the second act (and "clear" may be overstating it).
The music, however, is, well, another story. Musical director Steve Charles has created some extraordinary and surprising arrangements, never relying on the safety of Cohen's chops, but cunningly playing with the merchandise so that we get a wacky I'm Your Man (which may destroy any notion you have that the kazoo is not a sexy instrument); a raunchy, rocking out Hallelujah; laugh-out-loud moments during Chelsea Hotel.
We also get the goods – as expected – with a haunting and powerful Famous Blue Raincoat, a gorgeous Tower of Song and a spine-tingling Hallelujah reprise.
The members of the musical ensemble bring serious talent and versatility to the stage – along with an accordion, banjo, violin, cello, bass, guitars, keyboards, drums. They can sing, too. Rachel Aberle, in particular, shines and Benjamin Elliott is smartly hilarious as The Bellhop.
Adrian Glynn McMorran (The Writer) has a beautiful and decidedly un-Leonard Cohen-like voice – a wise choice; there's no point in plugging a Cohen mimic into the role. But this work demands a strong lead. And while his performance seemed to pick up steam through the night, he never quite transcended the blocked writer/heartbreaker caricature. Musically, on the louder more rollicking numbers, his voice simply couldn't compete with the instrumentation.
Give him a ballad and an acoustic guitar, however, and you've got magic. His simple Tonight Will Be Fine was a quiet showstopper. On Chelsea Hotel, he delivered that line about events on an unmade bed with a meaningful, penetrating look. Well played.
Where the show really had trouble was during some of the more traditional extended dance sequences. At their best, they were unremarkable. At their worst, awkward and clumsy – executed with obvious effort, with headset mics being knocked about. This isn't necessarily a problem with the choreography (which elsewhere is excellent); this just might be asking too much of this cast.
There were a few other rough spots on opening night: a knocked-over guitar, audible backstage footsteps, that sort of thing.
What will be remembered well about Chelsea Hotel is its overwhelming inventiveness. Most of the segments burst with ingenious creativity. The set is stunning and smart, in particular the tower of balled up papers held in by the hotel room's bed frame, a sort of sleeping mountain of rejected words. The costumes – with their cursive details (lyrics?) – are fun; at other times they become essential tools in determining who the character is. Most of the performances are excellent. And the music is fantastic.
We are impressed, but left wanting. The elements are there – and some of them are remarkable – but the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. Perhaps because Chelsea Hotel's artistic aim is unclear. The central character is not fleshed out sufficiently for us to really care about him, or whether he ever puts pen to paper successfully. And the narrative isn't developed enough to call this a play. Yet Chelsea Hotel is much more than a song cycle. It's something in between, I guess.
Chelsea Hotel runs until March 3.
- Conceived and directed by Tracey Power
- Musical Direction by Steve Charles
- Starring Adrian Glynn McMorran, Rachel Aberle, Lauren Bowler, Steve Charles, Benjamin Elliott and Marlene Ginader
- At the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver
- 3 stars
COVERING LEONARD COHEN
Leonard Cohen is an artistic well that other artists have returned to repeatedly, creating cover versions and much, much more.
Hallelujah k.d. lang, Jeff Buckley, John Cale and Rufus Wainwright are among the too-many-to-count musicians who have covered Hallelujah. Steven Page sang it at Jack Layton's funeral. And, for better or for worse, it has become a staple of Idol-type televised singing contests. Karaoke, anyone?
Tribute albums Jennifer Warren gave us Famous Blue Raincoat. In Tower of Song, Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Sting and others interpreted Cohen's works. And on what has to be the best-titled Cohen tribute album, I'm Your Fan, R.E.M., the Pixies and Nick Cave added to the Cohen cover canon.
Film The utterly forgettable Mel Gibson/Goldie Hawn vehicle Bird on a Wire borrowed its title from the Cohen song (swapping the "the" for an "a") – although it featured the Neville Brothers version; and Cohen's music has shown up on soundtracks ranging from McCabe & Mrs. Miller to Pump Up the Volume to Shrek.
Theatre Cohen has inspired theatrical creations in Canada before, among them: Bryden MacDonald's Sincerely, a Friend (Victoria's Belfry Theatre/Nanaimo Festival Theatre co-production); Blake Brooker's adaptation Doing Leonard Cohen (Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit); and Tom Northcott's Joyful Songs of Leonard Cohen and the New Step (Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre).
Book of Longing Composer Philip Glass released Book of Longing – a song cycle based on Cohen's poetry and images – in 2007. The project led to the Glass/violinist Tim Fain multimedia-stage collaboration Glass Portals.
Lyrics From Better Than Ezra's soulful Under You: "You moved in slow degrees / A sudden memory / You're a Leonard Cohen song." And in Nirvana's Pennyroyal Tea, Kurt Cobain wrote: "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally."