Book and lyrics by Dave Deveau. Music and lyrics by Anton Lipovetsky. Directed by Cameron Mackenzie. Musical direction by Clare Wyatt. A Cultch presentation of a Zee Zee Theatre production. At the York Theatre on Thursday, March 2. Continues until March 12
As a work of musical theatre, Elbow Room Café is a bit loose on its hinges, but as a celebration of community, it’s flamboyantly fun.
Dave Deveau and Anton Lipovetsky’s script is an adoring tribute to Davie Street’s legendary breakfast establishment and its owners, Bryan Searle and Patrice Savoie. We meet them here along with their employee, Nelson, and an assortment of patrons: Tim and Tabby, a straight Tennessee couple visiting Vancouver to celebrate their anniversary; Jackie, a lesbian getting together with Jill, the ex she dumped almost a year ago; and Amanda, a runaway bride coming off an all-night stagette with her friends Beth and Stephen.
The common thread here is commitment, with each table playing off the central partnership of the owners. Despite their nonstop vituperative banter, Patrice and Bryan are deeply devoted to one another. Patrice wants to get married; Bryan doesn’t. The bigger stakes—Patrice’s desire to retire and let someone else run the restaurant before he and Bryan get too old—don’t emerge until the end of the first act.
Deveau’s comedy is very local, very gay, and way over the top; the real-life Elbow Room’s rules (e.g., “Watch your ass—gay men behind you”), posted on the upstage wall, set the tone. There’s a self-consciousness here that can be tremendously fun: Tim doesn’t seem to realize he’s in a musical, for example, and uptight bridesmaid Beth’s attempt to invoke “the customer’s always right” earns her a sting from the on-stage drummer. But it can also be overly earnest: Patrice and Bryan spend a lot of time explaining who they are instead of just being themselves, and the restaurant’s history and value to the community are awkwardly tacked onto the story, which moves in fits and starts.
But how often do you get to see a real place you love depicted on-stage? Elbow Room fans are unlikely to complain about the script’s dramaturgical deficiencies or the fact that some of Anton Lipovetsky’s songs feel forced, especially given the talent that director Cameron Mackenzie has heaped onto this show’s plate. As Tabby, Emma Slipp commands both the stage and her husband Tim, hilariously portrayed by Steven Greenfield in a state of hapless perplexity at these people so unlike the “friendly, apologetic” Canadians he’s read about. Justin Lapeña is a sassy Nelson and a vocal chameleon as various fantasy figures that torment Tim. As Amanda, Synthia Yusuf is a powerhouse singer, and along with Nathan Kay’s loose-limbed Stephen and Stephanie Wong’s tightly wound Beth, she creates some of the show’s best physical comedy. Christine Quintana and Olivia Hutt are immensely likable as Jackie and Jill. As Bryan, David Adams anchors Allan Zinyk’s unrestrained Patrice. This is a true ensemble piece, and everyone seems to be having a blast.
Designer Marina Szijarto’s set affectionately re-creates the bright, celebrity-studded walls of the café, with a clever forced-perspective kitchen backdrop; and her costumes are as colourful as the show’s language. Musical director Clare Wyatt leads a tight all-female three-piece band.
Elbow Room Café has a few false endings; like the giant pancake breakfasts served up at its namesake, it can be too much of a good thing. But its power as a gesture of love for the people who have spent decades “changing lives, one egg at a time” is undeniable.