Review: Chelsea Hotel (Firehall, until March 29)

Info: Chelsea Hotel at the Firehall, March 18-29

(2012 production)

I’m a fan of Leonard Cohen’s music. My daughter, a musician, is perhaps even more so, and she knows and plays covers of some of his songs as part of her repertoire. We’ve been to three (or is it four) of his Vancouver concerts. So, how would Chelsea Hotel, which stitches together Cohen’s songs and poetry into a story about a struggling writer who checks into the Chelsea Hotel, fare in our judgment?

We both went in knowing that we often have difficulty with Leonard Cohen covers, because we’ve gotten so attached to how the man himself does them. But, we also knew, as you can see in the documentary “I’m Your Man”, that covers by sensitive musicians can breathe whole new meanings into songs, sort of like how you can see different colors in a prism when you turn it. 

We both agreed that we were stunned by the talent of the team, with their ability to play different instruments (keyboard, violin, cello, double bass, drums, and accordion–but don’t forget the harmonica and the kazoos!), sing, and dance. Three women (Rachel Aberle, Lauren Bowler, Marlene Ginader) play various roles that populate Cohen’s songs: temptresses, muses, lovers, friends, even the warrior Joan of Arc. Kayvon Kelly plays the lead as the frustrated writer. Ben Elliot plays a character I have seen referred to as the Bellhop. Steve Charles is a musician who floats through various scenes. 

The Bellhop reminded me of the Emcee in Cabaret (made famous by Liza Minnelli, but based on Christopher Isherwood’s stories in the “Goodbye to Berlin” collection). I saw the production last year (with a partially different cast), and, by memory, that aspect seemed stronger last year. This Bellhop has a bit of the Emcee, but he is an alter-ego of the writer, an imp that annoys the writer, and a homoerotic attractor. 

In the “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” number, I definitely had the feeling of the decadent KitKat club. This pre-World-War-II feeling also pervades “Take This Waltz” (I imagine a glittering, but decaying, Vienna in the interwar period) and “Dance Me to the End of Love” (a song that evokes thoughts of Russian pogroms). I recognize that other interpretations are possible, but those songs give that feeling to me. I felt that the actors captured these songs the way I understood them from Cohen.

With the classic song “Suzanne”, I loved the way the scene was set up and the song was acted out. The woman does wear “rags and feathers”, the nautical theme is there, and Suzanne does seem half-crazy. The song is done in a countrified arrangement, with a banjo (and other instruments). But–don’t be horrified. Leonard Cohen is himself a huge fan of country music (you can hear him doing an encore with “Tennessee Waltz” here), and I felt the arrangement did the song justice. ‘Suzanne’ is such a widely covered song that you can hear as many interpretations as you like.

Any concert that Leonard Cohen gives can only include a limited number of songs, so I’m not surprised that he does not seem to do some of his older classics, such as “Famous Blue Raincoat”, which is about the life of a young, struggling artist. It makes sense that other younger musicians might feel a greater resonance to this song. These actors did a wonderful arrangement, with a deep emotional understanding of its meaning–“It’s four in the morning, the end of December, I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better…”.

Some songs I felt I was hearing for the first time, although I ranged from moderately to very familiar with all of them. Perhaps I had never grasped their meaning, such as with “Joan of Arc”. Of course I knew the story. But I had never paid close attention to phrases such as “And then she clearly understood/If he was fire, oh then she must be wood.” Sung by one of the women, sitting partially hidden behind a stack of crumpled paper, in a beautifully melodic voice, it made sense.

The titular song, Chelsea Hotel, was rendered beautifully by Kayvon Kelly. The Chelsea Hotel was the hub of an artistic community that included Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Kris Kristofferson, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, and more. 

Perhaps wisely, this production had very few (I think none) of Cohen’s later works. Perhaps his more youthful output is a better fit for the story of a young and anguished writer. But one could imagine a production with a somewhat different set of Cohen songs that would convey a different total message, but be equally valid. Part of artistic direction is paring away, and the songs that made it into this work were all ones that worked very well together.

In some cases, the production cuts between and loops among the lyrics of songs, although most are sung intact. Cohen’s poetry, which I have little familiarity with, fills in narrative gaps.  

Talking with my daughter, she enjoyed the innovative way many songs were portrayed. But she was frustrated that “Lover, lover, lover”, which she said was probably her favorite Cohen song, was one of those that was cut and looped, rather than ever sung in its entirety. On the other hand, “Lover, lover, lover” was the perfect song to keep reappearing at various points in the production. It was another song for which I had a stronger visceral feeling and understanding of hearing it in this context. My daughter also felt the narrative line was lacking somewhat, which is a common problem in musicals. Nevertheless, she was thrilled to see it, and would recommend it.

I went into the production expecting that the narrative line would basically serve as a thin framework for the musical performances, so I was not disappointed. Think of this as a concert, with a bit of a storyline, rather than as a story with some music. 

This is a production that I would happily go see every night, just as I might play Leonard Cohen CDs several nights in a row. 

 

 

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