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N.Y. hotel room delivers writer's Hallelujah moment

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TRACEY Power has completed her Winnipeg hat trick of plays celebrating the work of a trio of famous Canadian entertainers.

As a young actress and budding playwright from Vancouver Island, Power made her city debut as America's sweetheart in her 2006 fringe festival bio-play Living Shadows: A Story of Mary Pickford. In 2010, Prairie Theatre Exchange hosted her drama Back To You: The Life and Music of Lucille Starr, which chronicled the tumultuous times of a St. Boniface-born country singer whose single The French Song sold a million copies in 1964.

Power kicks off 2014 at PTE this week with her musical Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. This time she is not delving into the legendary 79-year-old troubadour's eventful past, but borrows from his life's catalogue of transcendent songs and lyrics to tell the tale of a blocked writer who moves into a room of the landmark New York hotel in the hopes he can find inspiration by examining his troubled past so he can move on to the present.

No, Power doesn't find her next project by simply taking a stroll down Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto, but through her life-long interest in the colourful, compelling national figures that have made a major impact on the international stage. Pickford was a Hollywood pioneer in the 1920s while Starr was the first Canadian female singer to score a gold record.

"I think Canadian history is really important," says Power. Sometimes I feel like I know British history better than my own. Maybe I am on a personal quest to know more about Canadian history."

In Chelsea Hotel, the only history that mattered to Power was hers with Cohen's timeless songs, which she has been an avid fan of for a decade. A few years ago she worked on developing a wordless 1920s piece called The Accordion told solely through music and movement. It got her thinking about how much more exhilarating it would be if the music spoke to her more personally. That brought to mind the endlessly cool Cohen, who possesses one of the richest repertoires in contemporary music.

"For me, it's his lyrics," she says. "I love the poeticness of his words. I also love the theatricality it can inspire. It's never cut and dried. It allows your imagination to go wild a little bit and explore what his songs mean."

Chelsea Hotel premiered in Vancouver almost two years ago and was revived again there that fall. The six-member cast perform more than two-dozen standards from Cohen's 12 studio albums, including Suzanne, Bird on a Wire, Hallelujah, Tower of Song and Chelsea Hotel #2, which is about his dalliance in the New York landmark with Janis Joplin.

"It's all music. I wanted the music to be continuous. This story is inspired by his words. I want the audience to be able to fill in the blanks and imagine their own story," Power says.

Last year, she saw the ever-touring Cohen in concert and was reminded why his music's seductive blend of the sacred and the sensual has had him anointed the Byron of rock 'n' roll. She was struck again how his stage serenades create a personal bond with his audience even when he is playing to 15,000 people in a cavernous arena.

Despite numerous invitations, she has been unable to lure Cohen to see Chelsea Hotel. She has been dying to meet him, but the closest Power ever got was through her stage manager, when she ran into the I'm Your Man-singer during the Montreal stop on her Living Shadows tour.

"She completely lost it, and basically said she wanted to have his child," Power recalls, with a laugh. "She came home just trembling. In a way that was my first experience in what he does to people. Maybe I would have reacted the same way if I had met him. Oh, I'd love to sit in a coffee shop with him. We wouldn't have to say anything."

Despite becoming an octogenarian this year, Cohen's sex appeal endures. The eternal ladies man still cuts a dashing figure on stage in his signature fedora and dark suits while singing in his raspy voice, often on his knees, his sad, evocative love poems-turned-songs.

"I think the appeal is all about the mystery," says Power, who made a pilgrimage to the Chelsea Hotel, but found it closed for renovations.

"He's very secretive about where his songs come from. Why is he so secretive?"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 22, 2014 D3

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