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Chelsea Hotel cast photo, Vancouver

Mountains of crumpled paper showing hours of writer’s block, a sparsely-furnished city apartment containing a bed, dingy desk and chair, and lyrics to Leonard Cohen songs scribbled on the stage floor in white chalk: this is what theater-goers are presented with upon arrival at Firehall Arts Centre’s production of Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.

Chelsea Hotel is both a loving ode to Leonard Cohen’s vast catalogue as well as a multi-layered love story. A strong, talented, six-person cast takes the audience on a two-hour (with one intermission) exploration of Cohen’s contribution to the world of poetic music, beginning with the words “It’s been written on the walls of this hotel, you go to heaven once you’ve been to hell.” As the writer (Kayvon Kelly) scribbles on paper, his songs come to life on stage.

Having recently celebrated his big 8-0, Canadian singer-songwriter, musician, poet, and novelist Cohen has explored religion, politics, isolation, sexuality, and personal relationships in song for the past four decades. He’s been embraced as a true Renaissance man who crosses artistic borders through his expansive body of work.

Rachel Aberle, Steve Charles, Marlene Ginader, Tracey Power, Ben Elliott, and Kayvon Kelly bring this four-time Firehall-premiered entertaining piece to Vancouver through dance, music, and a variety of instruments, including violin, harmonica, guitar, banjo, cello, drums, and keyboard. Oh yeah, and a few cleverly-posed kazoos (17 instruments in all!).

Each one of the six cast members is allowed to shine here, however our standouts are lanky, comical Ben Elliott (Broken Sex Doll), Kayvon Kelly (Mother Teresa is Dead, The Graduate), and Marlene Ginader (The Buddy Holly Story).

Chelsea Hotel cast photo, Vancouver

Kayvon Kelly has a magnificent voice, as does Marlene Ginader. Ben Elliott’s glances and outfit are a fantastic match for his stature. He gets the most laughs, though the entire cast, as mentioned above, do a fine job from start to finish.

Touches of burlesque add a sultry quality to Jessie Award-winning Tracey Power’s (Urinetown) highly creative and unique production, perfectly suited for the Firehall Arts stage.

Dance Me Until the End of Love is particularly charming, as is Take This Waltz. The second act kicks off with an electrified Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On.

First We Take Manhattan was another winner. Softly melodic Tonight Will Be Fine was gorgeous. All songs wonderfully meld into one another, making for a colourful, soulful Cohen soundscape. Closing off the night is an introspective Hallelujah. Stunning.

Steve Charles, Ben Elliott, Marlene Ginader, Lauren Bowler
[Steve Charles, Ben Elliott, Marlene Ginader, Lauren Bowler; David Cooper photo]

Some of the predominantly black and white wardrobe (designed by Barbary Clayden) also contains lyrics to Cohen songs. The set design (Marshall McMahen) cleverly reveals instruments and performers, while the lighting (Ted Roberts) adds depth and atmosphere to this well-oiled production.

You don’t need to be a Cohen devotee to follow Chelsea Hotel, but you just might become one after having seen this show.

What a treat to have Chelsea Hotel at our disposal here in Vancity. Don’t miss. Here’s an idea: Experience the Chelsea Hotel on New Year’s Eve. The Firehall is offering a fun evening of the show, food, and midnight champagne toast for $75 per person. Visit the website for details.

Directed and created by Tracey Power, Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen continues through January 3 at the Firehall Arts Centre.

Unless otherwise stated, photos by Jillian Perry.

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