Created and directed by Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman. A Firehall Arts Centre production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Wednesday, May 3. Continues until May 20
In a telephone interview prior to the launch of Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell, creators Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman said that their intent was to recast the Alberta-born songwriter’s work for millennials, and judging by audience reaction at the last preview before opening night, their plot is working. Seniors and 20-somethings alike responded enthusiastically, as well they might: Circle Game sports an effervescent and ridiculously talented six-person cast, and is effectively lit and staged.
If your art of choice is theatre—or musical theatre, in particular—you’ll probably love it.
Musicians and hard-core Mitchell fans might respond differently. I’m both, and found myself continually questioning the “reimagining” part of this show’s mandate. Here, it seems to involve a relentless simplification of the harmonic structures and serpentine melodies that endeared their creator to jazz performers such as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock; in almost every case, Cohen and Kuman have dispensed with Mitchell’s original music in favour of sturdier but also far less interesting forms.
That’s understandable—and excusable, given that Circle Game is not a tribute to Mitchell, avant-folk composer and eccentric guitar genius. Instead, it’s an exploration of her lyrical themes, especially the Venn-diagram circles of loneliness, independence, and love that she examined so compellingly from 1971’s Blue through 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter—a six-album span of perfect records rivalled only, in pop, by the Beatles.
Theatrically, those themes are used most effectively in Circle Game’s first half, which centres around a budding romance between David (David Z. Cohen) and Adriana (Adriana Ravalli). The ramifications of their eventual breakup percolate through the second act, but only vaguely: the action shifts from student digs to the concert stage, more or less, and narrative falls away in favour of what Variety might once have described as boffo showstoppers.
The best of those, undoubtedly, is Scott Perrie’s “For Free/Free Man in Paris”. Using a looper to overdub rhythmic guitar parts and stack vocal harmonies, Perrie is, briefly, the kind of folk-rock god Mitchell herself might have once fallen for. Part of this number’s success, though, is that it’s the tune that deviates the least from Mitchell’s original melody. Otherwise, Circle Game’s only artistically audacious interpretation is the reverent chorale that Ravalli, Kimmy Choi, and Sarah Vickruck make of “Little Green”. It helps, of course, that we now know what that formerly mysterious song is about: Mitchell’s out-of-wedlock daughter, whom she gave up for adoption and didn’t see again for 32 years.
All the performers sing well, with David Cohen’s high tenor a particular pleasure. In addition to the usual guitars and pianos, trumpet, violin, ukulele, melodica, and various percussive devices are deployed for effective sonic variation. Carolyn Rapanos’s set is warm and flexible and even witty, especially in the way the standard lamps of Act 1 prefigure the microphone stands of Act 2. Even if Kuman and Andrew Cohen’s “reimagining” of Mitchell’s music is more of a dumbing down, Circle Game is far from a downer.