Bronwyn’s Review of Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen

Chelsea Hotel
(Steve Charles & Lauren Bowler. Photo by David Cooper.)

Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song is the metaphorical construct giving form to the narrative of his life in Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, and although lyrics don’t meet code, the performance proves a solid tribute to the duly acclaimed Cohen, one of Canada’s greatest literary and musical icons.

Not a concert, not a play, and most certainly not a musical, Chelsea Hotel makes its own mark on the arts scene with a song-based show that infuses Cohen’s poetry and lyrics with its inspiration, embodied in his somewhat mystic lovers, eternized by great care and a troubled / genius mind, and recorded by pen in the dingy, beautiful Chelsea Hotel.

His ladies come and go, and are his life and purpose and muse. He needs them desperately and loves them honestly.

I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.
(“Chelsea Hotel #2”)

Among his relationships there was Marianne Ihlen, of “So Long, Marianne,” whom he met on the Greek island of Hydra where her husband left her with their young son, Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children (the song “Suzanne” was written for someone else), and Joni Mitchell, among others. (Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen.)

“Lover, Lover, Lover,” “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne” are just some of the classics that take the stage.

While Cohen’s writing is his vulnerability, shown in the actor’s frustrated attempts at perfection, and crumpling paper, and searching for that paper, then starting again, and denying reality, in a sense, living by way of his art, it’s also his strength:

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all
I’m standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah they don’t let a woman kill you
Not in the Tower of Song
(“Tower of Song”)

As someone not at all an authority on Cohen, or even an informed fan, I watched with mixed confusion and joy and insight as the performers danced and sang from one lyric to the next, weaving a tapestry of guesses and illuminations on this reviewer’s mind. Yet going in “fresh” was no disadvantage: if the music didn’t please, the dancing did. If the dancing didn’t please, the lyrics did. If the lyrics didn’t please – but please, how could they not? – the lighting, the scene, the whole of it took the show.

Chelsea Hotel
(From left to right: Rachel Aberle, Marlene Gineader & Lauren Bowler. Photo by David Cooper.)

There is never an instant of dissatisfaction, just moments when your attention is drawn to some other aspect of the performance, or pleasantly lost in the line of a poem.

Whether you know the subject and his work well or not, Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, created and directed by Tracey Power and with musical direction by Steve Charles, is a gratifying way to appreciate the talent of one remarkable Canadian.

Since its premier at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver in February 2012, Chelsea Hotel returned for a second successful run in October 2012 and went on to tour in Saskatoon and Winnipeg. After its Lower Mainland tour it will return for a short run from March 18th to 29th at the Firehall Arts Centre.

Tickets for upcoming performances are available on the City of Surrey website.

Bronwyn Scott
Bronwyn has lived in Ottawa, P.E.I., Victoria, Squamish and Surrey, B.C. She has an English degree (SFU, 2011) and a journalism degree (Langara College, 2013) and for four years worked with Sandra Djwa on Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page, which won the Governor-General’s Non-Fiction prize in 2013. She’s an adventurous spirit who loves the outdoors and all things artsy. She’s written for the Surrey Leader, the Langley Times and The Squamish Reporter.