Chelsea Hotel is a knockout
Conceived and directed by Tracey Power. Musical direction by Steve Charles. A Firehall Arts Centre production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Wednesday, February 8. Continues until March 3
The artists in Chelsea Hotel take an unlikely premise and make it work—by throwing gobs and gobs of talent at it.
At the beginning of the show, a character that the program identifies as the Writer sits down at a desk surrounded by piles of crumpled paper and tries to compose. Scripts about blocked artistic processes usually die within minutes, victims of their earnest self-consciousness. But as it turns out, Chelsea Hotel is a knockout.
There are a whole lot of reasons for that, including the inventiveness of Tracey Power’s direction, the splendour of Steve Charles’s arrangements of Leonard Cohen’s transcendent songs, and the impressively multiple gifts of the cast.
There are weaknesses in Act 1. The storytelling is episodic. As we flip our way through the Cohen songbook—“Take This Waltz”, “Suzanne”—we watch as the Writer meets and discards a series of women. Some of the blocking and choreography in these episodes is illustrative: one of the Writer’s lover’s, an artist, mimes painting; Suzanne and the Writer pretend to scull because they are, after all, by the river. And the victimized woman/caddish Lothario dynamic is flatly repetitive.
But there’s so much to enjoy that I barely noticed these faults. For one thing, the show sounds fantastic. Arranger Charles, who also appears as a character called the Sideman, has sped up a lot of the tunes and given many of them a quirky carnival feel. Nowhere are the results more surprising than in “I’m Your Man”, which Lauren Bowler sings as a sexy kewpie-doll number that would be right at home in the New Vaudeville. In Power’s staging, just wait till you see what Bowler does with her cigar.
The harmonies are as thick as cabaret smoke and the performers exhale them with astonishing ease. Freakishly talented, they also play an insane variety of instruments—including guitars, keyboards, drums, violin, cello, bass, and accordion.
Everybody on-stage is a star. Benjamin Elliott makes a character called the Bellhop feel like the Emcee from Cabaret—but way more fun. Marlene Ginader can play the violin and dance at the same time, for God’s sake. And Rachel Aberle is, by turns, playful, sensual, and intense. At first, I was unsure about Adrian Glynn McMorran’s Writer—the desultory, unavailable male isn’t one of my favourite types—but man, did he win me over. In Act 1, McMorran delivers the ballad “Tonight Will Be Fine” with such bruising honesty that he stops the show. And by the time he got to “Bird on a Wire” at the end of Act 2, he had me sobbing.
The storytelling in Act 2 deepens considerably; as the narrative focuses on the relationship between the Writer and the Woman (Ginader), the victim/Lothario dynamic opens up into real complexity and regret.
Throughout, Power keeps delivering the best theatrical gift of all: surprise. Musical instruments pop out of unlikely places. Wit cuts through emotion. And there are multiple moments of physical magic that I won’t give away.
Marshall McMahen’s paper set is splendid, as are Barbara Clayden’s paper-inspired costumes.
At the beginning of the evening, I wasn’t sure if any of this would work. But Power’s vision pays off.