CHELSEA HOTEL REVIEW
Chelsea Hotel - The Songs of Leonard Cohen, is a thoroughly entertaining evening of fun-cum-flimsy narrative structure held together by the powerful poetic lyrics of a Canadian legend. For decades now Cohen’s words have melodically traversed the boundaries between the personal and the political, the sexual and the serene with a characteristic mocking, semi-self-deprecating tone that can appear, at once, both comical and sublime. The current production possesses a wealth of musical talent within an ensemble that has been tightly directed, musically arranged, and choreographed in a manner reminiscent of The Tiger Lilies - and particular ways of imagining the collaborations of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
For the most part palatable and entertaining, the evening dips lightly into scathing gender critique in the heteronormative vein, with moments when this queer critic longs for one – just one!!! – queer kiss among the ensemble. Just one!!! There is the odd chest grabbing, titillating embrace between the Cohen figure and his ghostly male muse/cum literary shadow, but it never moves beyond the homosocial continuum and into my own oft desired blatantly erotic clutch. Perhaps a female Cohen with a butch/femme counterpart would be a fantastical twist for future productions.
By setting the piece in a stylized hotel room with mammoth clutters of crumpled pages – one resembling a soft apocalyptic Christmas tree that opens wide – the stage is set, at the outset, for a movement through the times when the poet inhabited a room at the Chelsea, surrounded by other aspiring icons, and began to create his impressive oeuvre. The paper clutter is a clever idea that moves into poodle like proportions when the pages cluster around the legs of a writing table. And despite the seemingly unintentional imagery, I am a pushover for all things poodley.
The entire ensemble is impeccable, with the three women taking powerful positions that might have been shaken up a bit by placing them in less secondary poses from time to time. And yet their presence is always strong and slightly resistant to a dominant male, magically menacing quality that controls the poetic output at the heart of the cabaret drama – as it unfolds, tra la – la - la. La la…
There is an exquisite moment where staging and lyrics merge into a beautifully imagined light mockery of marriage and procreation, something along the lines of ‘do you really need this labour’ where the very idea of following the normative path through children and conjugal bliss (melded with the oft ensuing dis-bliss) is questioned in a haunting, harrowingly amusing manner. This only adds to the delightfully mixed pleasures of the evening – an evening that reminds us of the simple power and powerful simplicity of particular forms of figurative language (repetition, rhyme, alliterative delight, etc. etc. etc.) mastered and re-mastered by an international Canadian’esque celebrity whose work continues to be interpreted in a variety of profoundly entertaining, at times mind boggling ways.
And then there’s Hallelujah. . . The way in which it enters the mise-en-scene, and is reprised in a consciously contrasting manner, is an incredibly pleasing bit of lyrical and not so lyrical (yet necessarily and fabulously dissonant) proportions. It crashes and soars, crashes again, then flies back into harmonic heaven. Not to be missed in an era of Hallelujah adaptations ranging from popularized operatic tenors, to a children’s chorus, to light-hearted bans on new interpretations due to the sheer number of people inclined to interpret – again and again and again - this anthem-like tune and the creator behind them.
CHELSEA HOTEL The Songs of Leonard Cohen runs at Theatre Passe Muraille until February 21st.