Review: Chelsea Hotel at The Firehall Arts Centre
Chelsea Hotel is a brilliantly conceived, beautifully designed, and masterfully performed piece of theatre that brings new life and insight to Leonard Cohen’s profound body of work. Creator and Director Tracey Power has arranged a series of the poet’s most beloved songs into a tale of love, loss, lust, and redemption, and sets it within a magical, imaginative world.
The situations described within Cohen’s lyrics are far too specific to be shoe-horned into plot in the way that has been done with bands like ABBA and Queen. Instead, Power’s offers an abstract outline of a narrative, allowing audiences to interpret the emotionally charged words as they will, fleshing out the story’s detail within their own imagination.
The story, as it is, revolves around ‘The Writer’ who is holed up in the titular Chelsea Hotel. As he struggles to create, he is tormented by memories of past lovers. We see the Writer go down to the place by the river with Suzanne, tell one of Vienna’s ten pretty women to Take This Waltz, and bid So Long Marianne after dancing her to the end of love. As the story unfolds, the Writer is especially haunted by a figure in a (famous) blue raincoat, whose escalating reoccurrence ultimately drives The Writer to a heart-wrenching place of redemption (naturally underscored by the immortal Hallelujah).
When the show begins the Writer, played by the revelatory and truly golden-voiced Adrian Glynn McMorran, lies at the foot of a small mountain of discarded, crumpled paper. The action starts as ‘The Bellhop’, a pale-faced and white-garbed imp, pops out of the mountain and strikes the play’s opening notes on accordion. Performed with ample humour and sly charm by Benjamin Elliott, the Bellhop is one part muse, one part guilty conscience, and one part devil, as he drives our writer through the events of the evening.
The two are quickly joined on stage by Rachel Aberle and Lauren Bowler, who play a mercurial array of smitten girls, seductive vixens, and scorned lovers; Steve Charles, a multifaceted talent who also arranged the show’s compositions; and Marlene Ginader, who delivers a heart-filled performance as the broken-hearted, raincoat-wearing cast-off.
It is an incredible experience to behold such a vast quantity of talent on one stage (and especially in the intimacy of the Firehall) – not only are each gifted singers and actors, but also skilled instrumentalists, playing the show’s score on keyboard, drums, stand up bass, ukelele, guitar, violin, cello, banjo, and, in the case of I’m Your Man, kazoo.
The set designs of Marshall McMahen and costumes of Barbara Clayden are a feast for the eyes, and cleverly re-enforce the abstract, imaginative nature of the narrative. Where the writer is clothed in earthy brown, the rest of the cast and set are adorned in fabrics resembling paper (and featuring the odd scribbling of poetry). In this way, the Writer becomes the only solid, tangible person in this world, and the audience is free to interpret the figures who whirl about him as they will- as characters on a page, figments of imagination, ghosts from the past, or otherwise.
Ultimately, the success of a show like Chelsea Hotel must hinge on the music, and in this regard Power and her cast completely outdo themselves. Music Director Steve Charles creates arrangements that are both freshly original and deeply respectful of the source material. The exceptional voices of the cast blend beautifully, particularly in the lush, stacked harmonies that Charles carefully places throughout the work.
Chelsea Hotel uses the unquestionable power of Leonard Cohen’s art to create an original and deeply moving experience. Its uncannily talented cast and creative team combine the very best elements of poetry, song, and theatre to craft a profound and rapturous work that will resonate within audiences for a long time.
Chelsea Hotel runs until March 3 at the Firehall Arts Centre. Tickets are $26 for Adults, $21 for Students & Seniors at FirehallArtsCentre.ca