"River "Runs Bravely

John Mann Belatedly Recognizes Joni Mitchell's Phrasing And Enters A New Genre As A Result

For River, the new Vancouver Playhouse show based on the songs of Joni Mitchell, director Allen MacInnis has arranged 29 of Mitchell's creations so that they mirror the arc of a love affair, from the first bloom of infatuation through to the bitter dregs of regret. Although it's possible that exposure to Mitchell's incisive lyrics and idiosyncratic melodies might leave listeners somewhat wiser about matters of the heart, there's no happy ending here.

But for John Mann, the Spirit of the West singer and part-time actor who is River's male lead, there was a happy beginning. In a way, his presence in the show is all due to his earlier participation in one of Vancouver's first same-sex marriages.

"[Playhouse artistic director] Glynis Leyshon called me up and asked me to come in and meet with Al MacInnis, who is directing the show and who conceived of it as well," Mann explains. "So I went in, and he explained the concept. He asked if I knew any Joni Mitchell songs I could sing, and fortunately at Ken McDonald and Morris Panych's wedding they'd asked me to sing her song 'My Old Man'. So I'd learned that, and I sang that song, and then we talked a little more about it."

The singer--last seen on a Vancouver stage as Macheath in McDonald and Panych's production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera--admits that prior to being cast in River he had not been a huge fan of Mitchell's work.

"When I went in and spoke with Allen, he was asking me, 'Do you know this song? Do you know that song?' And I had to say, 'No, I don't. No, not that one,' " he allows. "But when I got the compilation of all her stuff, I was like, 'Oh my god, I do know those songs.' I guess I had heard all these songs as a kid, but I don't recall ever sitting down and learning them, and I never went out and bought her records"

"Geoff [Kelly, Mann's songwriting partner in Spirit of the West] has all her stuff, and he's always talking about certain songs of hers. In comparison, I feel like I'm really a latecomer when it comes to getting into her music, but that part of it has been great."

Getting to immerse oneself in Mitchell's world is a fine opportunity for any midcareer songwriter, as Mann testifies. "The thing that's blown me away more than anything else in going through all her songs is her phrasing," he says. "It's just so... I don't even know what to call it. It's kinda jazzy, but I don't know, it's just so broken-up in odd ways. Obviously I want to make these songs my own, but at the some time I'm trying to honour her phrasing, because that has to be 50 percent of what it's about. Her approach as a singer is really unique. She likes to screw around with where she comes in; it's not like she comes in on the one all the time. So there've been some pretty neat challenges associated with that, and her harmonies are incredible, too."

Mann is equally enthusiastic about the two women he'll be sharing the stage with once River opens at the Playhouse on Saturday (October 9). "She's an awesome singer," he says of Rebecca Shoichet, who studied musical theatre at Sheridan College before hitting the road with Amanda Marshall and Tom Cochrane. "She's got a really great voice, and I think she really shines in this show. She's a very, very sexy singer, and unbelievably watchable. And it's not like she's pushing it or anything; she's just really focused."

In contrast, Lorretta Bailey comes from a more traditional theatre background, although she, too, has spent time on the musical-theatre stage. "She did Les Miz at the Royal Alex and she was Maria in The Sound of Music at the Citadel in Edmonton, and she's a really wonderful actor," Mann notes. "She brings something really different to the show, in that she's focusing so much on the lyrical intent. She just digs in and finds these very interesting and astute angles based on her understanding of the lyrics. They're funny and they're poignant."

With two female and one male characters on-stage--and given the occasional complexities of Mitchell's own romantic history--one might expect MacInnis to arrange River around a love triangle, but Mann says otherwise. "No, I don't think that's there," he says. "We don't know what will happen, because we're still staging it, but I think up till now we've resisted the urge to play off each other as if we're characters in a piece of musical theatre.

"They're calling it 'a theatrical concert', and yet by no stretch of the imagination is it a musical," he adds. "And it's not like going to see a Motown revue or Ain't Misbehavin'; it's really not like that.

"It's kind of an odd new genre--and maybe it's like when you see a Tom Waits show where he's really going for it, and you say, 'That was way more than a concert; that was like seeing a piece of theatre.' It might have elements of that in it."

It's still too early to tell whether River will turn out to be a brave new theatrical form, an unusually well produced concert, or just a loose collection of songs. But between numbers like "Blue", "Coyote", "Free Man in Paris", and "The Magdalene Laundries" and the vocal talents of Mann, Shoichet, and Bailey, it's hard to see how MacInnis's vision can go too far astray.

River runs at the Vancouver Playhouse from Saturday (October 9) to October 30.