by Lynn on February 17, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainstpace, Toronto, Ont.

Conceived and directed by Tracey Power
Musical direction and arrangements by Steven Charles
Set by Marshall McMahaen
Costumes by Barbara Clayden
Lighting by Ted Roberts
Sound by Xavier Berbudeau
Cast: Rachel Aberle
Sean Cronin
Christina Cuglietta
Ben Elliott
Jonathan Gould
Tracey Power

Leonard Cohen’s songs are raw, poetic, lyrical and moving. Chelsea Hotel, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, is a mess of over-direction, racing tempi and bizarre interpretations. FEH!

Performance and comment. The action takes place in a hotel room in the famous/infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Marshall McMahen’s set has mounds of crumpled paper strewn around the room. In some cases the piles of papers conceal a piano, an instrument or two. Centre stage is a table on which are a whiskey bottle, a black notebook and a writing utensil.

The cast, for the most part, are dressed to look like hotel staff, and are made up to look like something out of the Walking Dead; ghoulish make-up, white face, exaggerated costumes. The women are in skimpy, revealing dresses that look like stereotypical maids in a porno movie. One man (Jonathan Gould) is dressed ‘normally’ in brown pants with suspenders, a jersey and no whiteface. He is the Leonard Cohen character and he has a roguish, mournful look. He sits at the table and writes a few words in his black notebook; rips the page out; crumples up the page and flings it onto the nearest pile of crumpled, discarded papers. He is obviously having writer’s block of sorts. But then he gets up, perhaps straps on a guitar, and the songs just pour out of him. Hmmmm so what are these? Supposedly new songs? Old songs to take his mind off his block? Am I giving this too much thought? Well someone has to, eh?

There must be a common assumption in theatre hell that says if you are doing a concert version of anything, even in a small theatre (as small as Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace), then every performer, including the instruments, must be microphoned. The result is that everything is LOUDLY amplified, as it is here, to the point that it sounds like grating noise, rather than melodic, often lilting music. I don’t doubt that the cast of six are accomplished singers; it’s just that I would have liked to have actually heard their voices without the harshness of the over-amplification.

Steven Charles has arranged much of the music so that it is played and sung in quick tempi resulting in a sameness of the music. We are talking about Leonard Cohen here—his music is varied in its tempi. There is a distinction in the tempi from song to song. Not in Chelsea Hotel, The Songs of Leonard Cohen.

Tracey Power has conceived and directs the show. I get the sense she thinks that almost every song in Chelsea Hotel, The Songs of Leonard Cohen could benefit from fussy, obtrusive, distracting direction. For example, there is Jonathan Gould downstage singing “First We Take Manhattan” and upstage are the hotel characters moving as he sings. When he comes to the lyric, “Then We Take Berlin” the group begins goose-stepping around the back. Is this really supposed to augment the song? On another song Power had some of her cast parade with parasols. Mystifying.

The show is certainly a compilation of Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits: “Bird on a Wire”, “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Hey, That’s No Way To Say Good-bye”, “Suzanne”, “Hallelujah” etc. but there isn’t one second of this show that I didn’t think these songs have been sung and interpreted better elsewhere, and that goes for the raspy-voiced Cohen himself, and I’m not a fan of that voice. And how can you have a show of his songs and not have a song list of what will be covered?

Enough. Not a good night in the theatre.

Theatre 20 with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille presents the Firehall Arts Centre Production:

Opened: Feb. 4, 2016.
Closes: Feb. 21, 2016.
Cast: 6; 3 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes approx.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Susan Walker February 18, 2016 at 8:59 am

I heartily agree with you. Saw the show in Victoria and it is a bit of an ordeal.


2 Esther Pifko February 18, 2016 at 9:14 am

My Dear Lynn
I sure am glad I saw the show prior to your review. I loved it. I was thrilled with the multi-talents of the entire cast. If the story did not make sense, that had no influence on my enjoyment of the music. The Story was merely a loose way to introduce the songs, which were the most important part of the evening. The set and choreography were fascinating and only added to my admiration of their talents. I always look forward to your opinion. We sure disagree on this one.