It’s written on the walls of this hotel.
You go to heaven once you’ve been to hell.
The tatty brownish wallpaper, scrawled over with snatches of poems, lyrics and notes, peels from the top of the walls. Piles and rows of discarded, crumpled white paper litter the space – the largest mountain all but covering the small bed. A desk. A chair. A notebook and pen. A bottle. A guitar.
Theatre 20, in partnership with Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) and The Firehall Arts Centre opened the Toronto premiere of Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen in the TPM Mainspace on Wednesday. Created, directed and choreographed by Tracey Power, with musical direction and arrangements by Steven Charles, Chelsea Hotel has travelled east after thrilling west coast audiences since 2012.
A high-energy, moving and sexy and combination of cabaret, vaudeville and gypsy caravan, Chelsea Hotel is set in a fantasy bohemian NYC hotel, a circus-like place of creativity, memory and struggle. The outstanding six-member ensemble sings, moves, dances and plays a mini-orchestra of instruments, bringing Cohen’s songs to life in a storyscape of dreams, despair, lust, love and writer’s block. Jonathan Gould is the Writer; a passionate young man, lusty and careless in love, and a talented and driven poet/songwriter struggling for the right words. The rest of the cast are the Writer’s Emcee-like hosts and muses: Ben Elliott, the hilariously bawdy and devilishly playful Bellhop; Rachel Aberle and Tracey Power, the cheeky and lusty Sisters of Mercy, taking on the roles of the Writer’s various lovers as they weave in and out of his memories of conquests and break-ups; Sean Cronin is the Side Man, a quiet soul with a melancholy Chet Baker voice and a talent for playing practically every instrument on the stage; and Christina Cuglietta as Jane, the ‘one,’ the girl in the blue raincoat that got away, sad and sweet as she clutches letters of goodbye, written on blood red paper.
So many classic Cohen songs, the story told with little to no dialogue – and, even then, one gets the impression that it’s all poetry and lyrics. Songs of love, loss, social and sexual politics: “Suzanne” (Gould & Power), “Everybody Knows” (Gould & ensemble), “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “First We Take Manhattan” (Aberle), “Bird on a Wire” (Gould), “Closing Time” and “Hallelujah” (Gould, Cuglietta & ensemble), among others. Strong solos, sweet harmonies and tight musicianship – and, as one audience member (my friend Dee) pointed out during the talkback, excellent sound/mixing – make for some beautiful storytelling, and a heart-wrenching and exciting ride.
Most of the packed house stayed for the post-show talkback, including an enthusiastic and inquisitive group of Sheridan College theatre students. When asked about the inspiration for the show, Power pointed to the work of Cirque du Soleil, particularly Love; she was interested in using bodies to tell the story in a non-literal, non-linear way. As for the songs, Elliott mentioned that Charles had some arrangements of Cohen’s music that he particularly liked. Power said she know some that she wanted right away as she began conceiving the show, then she listened to the Cohen catalogue; “Closing Time” was the last one added. She listened to the songs, being mindful of how they played out in her head. (“Hallelujah” appears at various intervals: one a Dante’s Inferno version, then later more contemplative and redemptive.)
The casting process occurred while the play was in draft form (Charles played the original Side Man), and they auditioned actors with an eye on what else the actors could do – then built the parts around each cast member’s skill set. When asked to describe their characters, the cast responded:
Elliott (Bellhop): Ambassador of memories, muse, the devil on the Writer’s shoulder, getting him to write.
Gould (Writer): The vehicle for the through-line of the story, inviting you in and out of his life, work, memories.
Cronin (Side Man): Aside from the musician reference, he is two different characters; one serves as a version of the Writer’s psyche (frustration, guilt, desire), with a child-like innocence, and the other is someone the Writer has hurt (possibly Jane’s husband).
Power (Sister of Mercy): Keepers of the hotel, problem-solvers, getting the writer to deal with his stuff, his past.
Aberle (Sister of Mercy): Getting the writer writing, getting him to mine his past for what he can use.
Cuglietta (Jane): The love that needs to be addressed, released.
On the significance of the costumes (by Barbara Clayden), Power said that she “wanted everything to look like paper,” so they went with raw cotton, which could be written on, folded and scrunched up like paper. One audience member asked about the giant pile of paper on the set (by Marshall McMahen), which characters can ascend; Cuglietta (who spends a lot of time up there with her violin) explained that there was a wooden staircase under that mountain of paper.
When asked about the actors’ preparation process, Elliott described the warm-up: scales, movement – it’s a physically robust piece to perform, with lots of multitasking, so the cast practices self-care and taking care of each other. On the evolution of the show, Aberle (she and Elliott have been in the cast from the beginning) said they’ve gotten better at it. With so many elements to remember, now that they’ve been running it for a few years, it’s become more second-nature. Now, the task is to keep it fresh and find new things to challenge themselves as performers.
With big shouts to the design team, which along with Clayden and McMahen includes Ted Roberts (lighting) and Xavier Berbudeau (sound).
It’s a moving, magical journey of love, memory and art told through songs in the brilliant, entertaining Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Chelsea Hotel continues at the TPM Mainspace till Feb 21. Tickets can be purchased by calling 416-504-7529 or by going online or in person at the box office. Advance booking is strongly recommended – they’re packing the house over there.
Check out the show’s trailer: