Elbow Room Café: The Musical dishes out its theatrical due

The creators of this brash tribute to the iconic Davie Street spot reflect on a colourful history

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      After a remarkable 34-year run, Vancouver’s most deliciously theatrical experience is finally taking the stage. But don’t worry: you can still dine at Davie Street’s Elbow Room Café, and if you show up with your ticket stub from Elbow Room Café: The Musical, you’ll even be entitled to 15 percent off.

      For those in the know, and for the occasional party of befuddled suburbanites, the Elbow Room has been serving up all-day breakfasts with a side order of abuse since well before Seinfeld’s Yev Kassem sold his first bowl of soup.

      Want coffee with that? Fill your own damn cup.

      Cashier and co-owner Patrick Savoie generally dominates the room, his camp sarcasm and over-the-top personality as abrasive and endearing as any stage star’s. In fact, when Savoie and his business and domestic partner Bryan Searle really get going, it’s a wonder the cooks don’t hide the knives. The invective is as sharp as a Japanese cleaver; the customer is never right; and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll play along, because the eggs Benedict are worth suffering for. Try the Brett Cullen.

      The inherent theatricality of the Elbow Room, one of the city’s first out-and-proud restaurants, was not lost on the husband-and-husband team of Dave Deveau and Cameron Mackenzie, the playwright-and-director brains behind Zee Zee Theatre. Long-time café patrons, the two were having a celebratory brunch after an opening and discussing what their next project would be when they realized that they needed look no further.

      “Musicals have just become such a fascinatingly hot genre,” says Deveau, who shares writing credits with composer and librettist Anton Lipovetsky. “And pretty much everything had become a musical, often things that just felt incongruous, like Rocky: The Musical. And we were sort of imagining what that could be for Vancouver, and we looked around the café, and Cam said, ‘Well, Elbow Room Café: The Musical would make so much sense!’ You know, the place is chaotic and rhythmic and colourful and gaudy and loud. It immediately sort of lends itself to the form.”

      Of course, taking a popular, if eccentric, diner and transferring it to the stage isn’t quite as simple as throwing a few tables and a prep station into the York Theatre, where Elbow Room Café: The Musical debuts next week. The show has been four years in the making, an earlier iteration having been tested at Studio 58 in 2015. The new, fully professional version has a smaller cast, a larger band, and a tighter focus, but retains four intertwining plot lines.

      Elbow Room Café: The Musical contains four story lines that weave together "into this big, Technicolor, insane, debauched piece".
      Emily Cooper

      “Our focal point is Bryan and Patrick and the Elbow Room—and the notion of growing old, and what stamp we sort of leave on the world through the people or the things that we leave behind,” Deveau says. “As the real-life Bryan and Patrick are aging, that’s something they think about a lot. Will they be remembered? How might they be remembered?”

      A separated lesbian couple, Jackie and Jill, offer a counterpoint to Bryan and Patrick’s seemingly toxic yet ultimately enduring relationship. “There’s a story line surrounding the possibility of them reuniting in the café,” the playwright explains. “There’s also a bachelorette party: the bride-to-be and two members of her wedding party, who are desperately trying to get her on a plane to Mexico for the wedding—but they’ve been partying all night, and they’re still going. And the show opens with this couple, these tourists from Tennessee who’ve travelled to Vancouver to visit Stanley Park and the beautiful nature of the West Coast, but who somehow get sucked into the madness of the café. And slowly these four story lines weave together into this big, Technicolor, insane, debauched piece.”

      THE FARCE IS STRONG with this one. And yet it would not be a Zee Zee production without serious underpinnings. The company is perhaps best known for its ongoing Human Library collaboration with the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, in which audience members check out human “books” for brief, one-on-one interactions. The purpose is to ensure that marginalized populations have a voice within the world of the performing arts, and that’s also the hidden focus of Elbow Room Café: The Musical.

      Savoie and Searle are not economically marginalized; their business has provided them with a comfortable living. Nor are queer story lines absent from musical theatre. But they are unapologetically elderly—Searle is in his 80s, Savoie a decade younger—and if the old are underrepresented in popular culture, gay seniors are so rarely seen as to be invisible.

      “In our community, we often forget about our elders,” Mackenzie says. “AIDS wiped out a large, large portion of gay men that would otherwise have been a link between generations.…Young gay people don’t have the opportunity to learn about their history and the battles that came before them, because it’s hard to meet older queer people. So, for me, this is the interesting thing. For me, the café is the physical tie between generations—and that sort of represents the marginalized. It’s a story that we don’t often hear.”

      Complicating and enlivening the process of creating Elbow Room Café: The Musical is that the two theatre artists consider Savoie and Searle friends, as well as role models. Enacting real lives on-stage is problematic enough; portraying friends must be even more daunting.

      “I don’t know that I would necessarily take on giving voice to someone in the community who I didn’t have the kind of admiration for and access to that I have with those two,” says Deveau, noting that he and Mackenzie were given full access to the older couple’s extensive archives. Through them, he adds, the production team learned that the Elbow Room is more than just a fascinating success story: it was also a site of comfort and resistance during the worst days of the AIDS crisis.

      “I was born in the ’80s, so I’m not speaking from firsthand experience,” Mackenzie says. “But the fact is that Patrick kept folks who had been infected with HIV working until they decided they weren’t ready to work. The fact is that he was not going to follow suit with what a lot of other businesses were doing: at the first sign of somebody being sick, they were being dismissed, regardless of how capable they were. The fact is that Patrick was honouring his community and treating them with dignity.”

      And the fact is that, to date, the Elbow Room has raised almost $100,000 in donations to A Loving Spoonful, a local charity that provides nutritious meals to people living with HIV. (If diners don’t clean their plate, they’re sure to be guilt-tripped into making a donation by the persuasive, and persistent, Savoie.)

      Yes, he and Searle present a perverse and puzzling public front, but there’s a sweetness behind all the banter. “One of my favourite lines in the play,” says David Adams, who plays Searle to Allan Zinyk’s Savoie, “comes when Jackie, one of the girls, turns to Patrick and says ‘Well, do you actually like each other?’ And he says, ‘Only when no one is looking.’ ”

      “They can get away with serving so much lip,” Deveau adds, “because it’s underscored by just tremendous heart and caring for the community.”

      And it’s exactly that kind of heart that Mackenzie hopes will drive Elbow Room Café: The Musical. “If people leave the theatre singing and feeling like they’re a part of something bigger, that’s exciting,” he says. “I always want people to leave entertained and happy, but maybe having learned something.

      “I want people to experience the differences between us and honour those differences,” he adds. “But I also want them to realize that we’re actually all human, and the differences that we think divide us are kind of inconsequential.”

      The real-life Savoie would no doubt put it less politely—but regardless of their politics or sexual orientation or attitude, everyone would still get fed.

      Elbow Room Café: The Musical runs at the York Theatre from next Thursday (March 2) to March 12.