Chelsea Hotel a story of overcoming writer’s block through Leonard Cohen’s songs

It’s clear someone has been busy in the Citadel’s Maclab Theatre – you can tell by the way the stage is strewn with crumpled papers. As the lights rise on Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohenit’s clear that someone has been in this room for a long time, suffering a severe case of writer’s block – there’s an 8-foot high mound of discarded papers to prove it.

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen is written by Tracey Power, a Vancouverite who trained in Edmonton, and plays at the Citadel Theatre as part of a cross-Canada tour until January 24.

There are a couple of ways you can approach Chelsea Hotel as an audience member – either through the love of the music and the way it’s re-imagined or through the theatricality and the story that has been woven through the music. Admittedly, I’m not very familiar with Leonard Cohen’s work, so I definitely followed the latter approach.

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen is told primarily through song – 28 of Cohen’s songs arranged by Steve Charles, who also serves as music director. We meet our central character at the top of the play, as he sits in a dingy hotel surrounded by a mountain of rejected drafts, which only grows as he keeps trying to write and rejecting the output. The central character is soon joined by five other characters representing past friends and lovers, who use their instruments and voices to revisit Leonard Cohen’s songs, and guide the central character through his writer’s block.

Anyone who has any type of artistic pursuit can identify with the central character’s experience in Chelsea Hotel. For me, this show was all about that moment when you start writing – or whatever your version of creating is – and what comes out isn’t what you envisioned or hoped it could be. So, naturally you go back and revisit everything you’ve created in the past and re-imagine how you could have done it differently or even “better”. Perhaps the best summation is a line (one of only a handful that aren’t from Cohen’s songs) early in the show: “How can I create something new when I’m full of yesterday?”

I don’t know that I came away with a sense of the story being told – rather I enjoyed the music and being able to commiserate with the main character. My experience of the show was equal parts being swept away by the themes of love offered and rejected and then the subsequent longing for that love and lover, with a healthy mix of ‘Wait, what is going on here?’. Chelsea Hotel is a surreal dream-play, which works well with the poetry and depth of Cohen’s lyrics and, as surrealism does sometimes, the show sometimes stumbles into that realm of feeling like you’re hallucinating.

The cast is made of talented actors and musicians (Rachel Aberle, Steve Charles, Sean Cronin, Christina Cuglietta, Benjamin Elliott, Jonathan Gould, and Tracey Power) who are are that key piece in creating a story out of the songs that have been arranged together through their embodiment of the lyrics in a way that works to build a story from the seemingly random collections of song. The performers worked as a true ensemble, effortlessly executing choreography which required them to fluidly change and adopt new roles within the scene as well as switch seamlessly between a variety of instruments ranging from a cello to an accordion to a piano to a kazoo and more.

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen plays at the Citadel Theatre until January 24. Tickets are $25 – $90 through the Citadel’s box office or website.

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