A cold and very lonely Hallelujah
Leonard Cohen-scored psychodrama more meaningful than ever in Firehall reprise
Seven years since they first started workshopping Chelsea Hotel, director Tracey Power and producer Donna Spencer have brought the show back to its home base, Vancouver’s own Firehall Theatre. In the meantime, some 200+ nationwide performances later, the six-member cabaret rendition of Canadian troubadour Leonard Cohen’s cumulative songbook has only gained added poignancy.
For one thing, Cohen himself died, aged 82, in 2016, just a day before the upset election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. This automatically boosted Cohen's already apical status in the global musical pantheon, rendering a sadder and maybe marginally wiser public even more attuned to his rueful, hope-against-hope ironies. His iconic Hallelujah, for instance, promptly emerged as an anthem of anti-Trump resistance.
Many in the opening night audience at the Firehall revival seemed to know the score of Chelsea Hotel well enough to lip-synch along with the two-hour farrago of non-stop music. No mean feat, that, as the songs were all hashed together and copiously intercut rather than played out straightforwardly beginning-to-end. So to singalong, you’d need either to have seen the show before, probably more than once, or else to have memorized just about everything Cohen ever wrote.
And even if you knew the whole Cohen canon by heart, you might not immediately recognize Vancouver composer/performer Steve Charles’ strikingly original arrangements right off the bat. The close harmonies of his six-voice choral settings could hardly be more different from either the gravel-voiced, acoustic tenor of early Cohen recordings or the synthesizer-heavy instrumentation of the later albums.
All members of the onstage sextet accompany themselves on no fewer than 17 musical instruments, which they trade off amongst themselves with dazzling fluency. At the same time they dance through the intricate paces of Power’s frenetic choreography to convey a chiaroscuro of shifting emotion.
The mood shifts can get a tad disorienting. There's no plot line or dialogue to cling to – just the purely internal psychodrama of Cohen’s eloquently enigmatic libretto. The only “action” seems to be a poet (Adrian Glynn McMorran) in the throes of writer’s block, holed up in the Bohemian mecca of New York’s Chelsea Hotel. As he drains half a bottle of some unspecified booze, he’s goaded, berated or cajoled by five spectral “muses” in whiteface, hauntingly evoked by costume designer Barbara Clayden.
There’s a pair of vampy chambermaid types (Kayla Nickel and Krystle Dos Santos), a gamine violin virtuoso (Marlene Ginader), and a leering butler (Ben Elliot), alternately solicitous or sadistic. And then there’s Steve Charles himself, who appears on stage for star-turn instrumentals and occasional “recitative” settings of Cohen’s early un-scored poetry. All six performances were polymath tours de force.
As discarded manuscript pages pile up in drifts all over his tawdry room, the writer reviews the equally crumpled false starts of his lost loves, fleetingly sketched in a series of approach/avoidance pas de deux with his female “muses.” Now and then his trysts with the gamine almost rise to the level of straight-up, unalloyed tenderness. But then the writer recoils and the other choristers drag Ginader back into rote – almost mechanistic – lockstep.
Such jagged choreography well befits some of Charles’ startlingly offbeat interpretations of classic Leonard Cohen lyrics like I’m your Man (enacted with many a bump-and-grind by all three women onstage) or Take this Waltz.
The most striking example may be his rendition of the usually gauzy, prayerful strains of Hallelujah. He uses the embittered 1988 lyric to turn the song into a throbbing, dystopian hellscape (luridly daubed in red by lighting designer Ted Roberts). But he returns to the song, using the gentler 1984 version, to bring the show to a graceful conclusion: the writer and his gamine at last in a tearful embrace as the dew-eyed audience lip-synchs right along with them.