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In Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell, six performers sing, play a variety of musical instruments and perform dance-y routines to a long list of songs by the Canadian artist.

Emily Cooper

1.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell
Genre
Musical
Directed by
Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman
Actors
Kimmy Choi, David Z. Cohen, Rowen Kahn, Scott Perrie, Adriana Ravalli, Sara Vickruck
Venue
Firehall Arts Centre
City
Vancouver

I'm not sure what I was expecting from a show that billed itself as Joni Mitchell's music, reimagined, but I know it wasn't this. I guess I thought there would be some sort of plot, a through-line, added meaning, dialogue – or at least some actual reimagining. Because why would you go see a group of people who aren't Joni Mitchell perform her songs if there wasn't something else to it? Some sort of storyline, some sort of something?

The jukebox musical has become a familiar musical-theatre convention – using older popular songs to tell the story of the musician (Beautiful – The Carole King Musical) or an entirely made-up story (Mamma Mia!). There is a reason these shows have been spectacular hits: They take the greatness of the source material (yes, ABBA was great) and lift it to a new theatrical level. Chelsea Hotel – The Songs of Leonard Cohen, which had its world premiere at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver in 2012, was innovative and ingenious to the extreme. These productions in turn bring new life to the music.

Then there's Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell, which had its world premiere at the Firehall on Wednesday.

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In the show, co-created by husband-and-wife team Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman, six performers – Kimmy Choi, David Z. Cohen, Rowen Kahn, Scott Perrie, Adriana Ravalli and Sara Vickruck – sing, play a variety of musical instruments and perform dance-y routines to a long (well, it felt long) list of Mitchell songs, including hits such as Chelsea Morning, Help Me, Free Man in Paris, Both Sides Now and Big Yellow Taxi. That's about it.

Yes, there were new arrangements. But they often did not work.

Yes, there was choreography. But it was clunky and uncomfortable.

Yes, there were six dedicated performers who have obviously worked hard to bring this show to life. But – and I'm sorry to say this – they simply didn't have the musical chops to pull it off.

If you're going to rearrange and perform well-known, beloved (some might call it sacred) music, the new arrangements had better be fantastic and the musicianship had better be spectacular. On Wednesday night, at least, there were more than a few off-key cringers and messy moments.

You know how when you watch great performers, what they're doing seems effortless? This was the opposite of that. You could see the effort not just when it failed, which was often, but also when it worked.

How do you sit through two acts of Joni Mitchell's music and not feel a twinge of emotion even once? (And I write this as someone who regularly weeps at TV commercials.) I'm not sure I have ever listened to Both Sides Now and not felt something stir in me. On Wednesday night, nothing stirred.

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Remember when you and your artsy friends got together in your basement and acted out routines to music you loved? And then called your parents downstairs to watch, and they smiled and clapped because they loved you? Maybe you were having a better time than they were watching it? That's how opening night felt.

There were some high notes – a great percussion bit to open the second act, for instance. The cast appeared to be having a ball; that was good. And they were putting their whole hearts into it, they were. That makes it hard to write this.

But if you want to hear some great music, go see a real singer-songwriter or blues act or punk or metal band. Even a tribute band; that can be a blast. Or stay home and spend a night with Joni on vinyl – or on Spotify. Make up some dance routines of your own.

Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell runs through May 20 (firehallartscentre.ca).

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