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Cohen fans should check into Chelsea Hotel

Cabaret musical pays homage to troubadour's timeless catalogue

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There is no way there won't be a spike in Leonard Cohen album sales in the city during the run of Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen at Prairie Theatre Exchange.

You can't come away from this entertaining musical cabaret, which opened Thursday night, and not be astounded once again by the poetry/lyrics penned by this Canadian bard, who sits at the top of the tower of song. Chelsea Hotel brings together some of the most beautiful, melancholic and affecting songs in the history of recorded music. The audience at Wednesday's preview performance could be heard leaving PTE humming the climactic number, always a good sign for a musical.

The challenge for director Tracey Power (Back to You: The Life and Music of Lucille Starr), who also conceived Chelsea Hotel, is to make the evening more than the stage equivalent of the 1995 tribute album, Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, on which a group of singers have their way with the Cohen canon.

The Vancouver actress dresses Cohen's verse in a sketchy fictional story of some exasperated, stopped-up scribe, unable to put pen to paper for more than a couple of lines before balling the sheet up and throwing it onto a ceiling-high pile of discards, which dominates set designer Marshall McMahen's sensational rendering of a writer's hellhole. Scribblings adorn the hotel room and some of designer Barbara Clayden's costumes.

The dark mindset of the writer is repeated several times: "You have to go to hell if you want to get to heaven."

While Power has explicitly stated that Chelsea Hotel is not biographical, it is near impossible not to think that the writer is Cohen, played with appealing restraint by actor Kayvon Kelly, who bears a vague, swarthy resemblance to a young version of the Montreal-born ladies' man. Who are we supposed to think is on the bed in the title song?

In his fevered mind, the writer is visited by five white-faced characters/musicians, three of whom will play many roles, among them the loves of his life, Suzanne (Lauren Bowler), Marianne (Rachel Aberle) and Jane (Marlene Ginader) from Famous Blue Raincoat. He is tended to by a spiky-haired bellhop (Benjamin Elliott) and a sideman (Steve Charles). The half-dozen performers who make up the primo cast of the Firehall Arts Centre production from Vancouver stage an elaborate concert with impressive production values.

Despite their best efforts, however, the plot remains only roughed-in, the inevitable result of lining up songs together that were never intended to be connected. Anyone other than a Cohen fanatic will abandon trying to follow the narrative and luxuriate in the pop sage's gripping stream of consciousness.

Like the tribute album, Chelsea Hotel opens with a well-performed Everybody Knows, given a visually arresting treatment as Kelly emerges from the paper pile on his bed while Ginader is on top (of mind?), accompanying him on the accordion.

In the two hours that follow (including intermission), two dozen songs are treated to lively, thoughtful arrangements and Charles and Power's inspired staging makes Cohen's wry and mordant humour sparkle all the brighter. Tempos are varied to avoid any feared Cohen drone-athon, while modest but welcome dance fills up the stage.

Surprise is ever-present as Kelly sings Suzanne, backed by Charles on the banjo. Bowler, a standout throughout, gets to prance around only wearing a bedsheet as she heats up the stage with a taunting I'm Your Man that features a cigar-cum-kazoo.

Kelly provides a much more pleasant voice than Cohen's emotive rasp and excels with Tower of Power, nonchalantly contemplating aging and loss as he serenades with a sweet harmonica. The raggedy-haired Ginader rises to prominence in the second half, although her violin-playing is a treat to listen to throughout.

Chelsea Hotel's closing section opens with a well-known line of Cohen poetry: "Love is a fire/It burns everyone/ It disfigures everyone." The songs that follow are two of Cohen's most emotional and listening to the words provides an uplifting send-off.

A large portion of the audience that stood at the end was likely saluting the enduring artistry of Cohen, long since having given up on wondering whether the writer ever got out of the Chelsea Hotel.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2014 D3

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