I’ve seen Oklahoma! one too many times. I grew up watching Oliver! and listening to the soundtrack for Les Miserables. Needless to say, I find traditional musical theatre more than a little aggravating. It’s why I find musicals like Next to Normal so darn refreshing. They don’t conform. Chelsea Hotel is like that. It’s a piece of theatre that will do what it came to do regardless of what came before. Chelsea Hotel doesn’t care that Oklahoma! came first or that it ran for umpteen years on Broadway. It’s just not relevant.
Chelsea Hotel is more a song cycle than a musical. The whole is comprised of Leonard Cohen’s songs, framed in the context of Cohen himself sitting in the Chelsea Hotel trying to write poems. Almost Ebenezer Scrooge–style, he is visited and influenced by ghostly visions to help him write. There is a plot—kind of—but it’s pretty thin. Mostly it’s just good music. The production toys with the idea that some of the ghost-muses, if you will, are people from the poet’s past. But not all of them, and certainly not exclusively. But again, the plot isn’t relevant either.
What strikes me right off the bat is how smooth the production is. It flows from one lighting cue to another, one song to the next, complete with costume changes and instrument switching and I can barely tell when it happens. Furthermore, the actors constantly pull all kinds of things from their pockets: paper roses, love letters, and a pair of underwear, to name a few. But I barely see it happen. These objects and people slip in and out and even when I’m looking for it, I barely see it happen.
I’ve seen enough theatre to know that if I look away from where I know the director wants me to look, I can usually catch actors sneaking in and out with a prop clutched under their arm. But here, there is no such thing. Even with several guitars and an upright bass onstage, a cello that comes and goes, and ukuleles that evaporate into thin air, nothing is clumsy. Ever.
The talent in Chelsea Hotel is astonishing. Six actors (Rachel Aberle, Sean Cronin, Christina Cuglietta, Ben Elliott, Jonathan Gould, and Tracey Power) carry the entire piece pretty much equally divided between them. And although each character is distinct, these people undoubtedly form a tight ensemble. This also marks a change from traditional musical theatre repertoire: no one is the “star”, yet at the same time everyone is. Chelsea Hotel reminds me, in more ways than one, of what I imagine ancient Greek theatre must have looked like.
The first reason is that mostly it’s chorus-based, but occasionally one or two performers separate themselves from the group. The second is the design.
Basically, the whole set is made out of paper. This gives the whole thing a creamy-white Acropolis feel. (I know Greek theatre was not performed in the Acropolis. Cut me some slack—we’re talking aesthetics.) There are piles of scrunched-up paper everywhere, defining the problem before anyone even walks onstage. Someone has really bad writer’s block. The walls of the hotel room are also made of paper. And the actors wear poetry on their costumes. The black and white theme carries on in the costuming, and the white pieces are patched with scribbles. Things clear up a little: someone has writer’s block so bad that their imagination has created muses that wear words.
Chelsea Hotel deserves the accolades it has received for the past four years of tours. It will, without a doubt, receive many more before its time in Toronto is done. Chelsea Hotel runs at Theatre Passe Muraille until February 21.