Johnny Cash, k.d. lang, both Rufus and Martha Wainwright, R.E.M., the Pixies, Bono... it might actually be harder to finds artists who haven’t taken a run at interpreting a Leonard Cohen song than it is to find those who have.
So is there still room for a stage show based on Cohen’s music?
If the show is Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, the answer isn’t quite a resounding “hallelujah” - but a solid “bring it on.”
'Provided it’s approached with an open mind, Cohen fans will be delighted at the cleverness through which his songs are woven into an engaging story.' -Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer s
The Prairie Theatre Exchange production - an import from Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre, where it premiered in 2012 - is conceived and directed by Tracey Power. It’s built around the loose framework of a writer stuck in the titular hotel, struggling through writer’s block - and confronting the ghosts of lovers past as he does.
The story, basic as it may be, is told without the use of any dialogue, save a few spoken Cohen lyrics. Rather, it unfolds through a thoughtfully curated cycle of Cohen songs. Under Power’s careful construction, they tell a story that is surprisingly coherent and emotionally resonant, given that it’s really a disparate series of songs strung together.
It’s all staged with the kind of aesthetic and attitude more commonly seen at the Fringe Festival than on Winnipeg’s professional stages, and that’s a good thing. From opening number “The Guests,” with its refrain of “No one knows where the night is going,” there’s a certain carnival-esque atmosphere in the white face paint and slightly anarchic antics of the performers.
Power and company take some significant risks with the Cohen canon, too, which largely pay off. Purists be warned - this is not Leonard Cohen’s music as you’ve heard it performed before. The cast of six (a talented bunch who act as multi-instrumentalists as well as capable singers) deliver everything from a gypsy jazz take on “Everybody Knows” to a cheeky, gender-bent torch song version of “I’m Your Man” to a driving rock rendition of “First We Take Manhattan.” Most of musical director Steven Charles’ arrangements work well, though a few feel a bit flat.
And indeed, my biggest qualm with the preview performance I saw was a general sense that the show’s energy doesn’t always quite hit the point it could, or should. The fact that one cast member was clearly under the weather at that performance certainly wouldn’t have helped, and some of that energy might find its way into the show as its run goes on. But there’s sometimes a sense of tentativeness in Chelsea Hotel - due largely, I think, to staging that grows slightly repetitive by the end of the two hour-long show.
That said, there’s more that works in Chelsea Hotel than doesn’t. Provided it’s approached with an open mind, Cohen fans will be delighted at the cleverness through which his songs are woven into an engaging story. And even those who don’t worship at the shrine of Leonard may want to take this waltz for its inventive, irreverent, but still compellingly pretty take on the work of a Canadian icon.
Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until Feb. 9.