theatre review


JONI MITCHELL: RIVER
created by Allen MacInnis
Vancouver Playhouse
October 9-30
$16-$50
604-873-3311
http://www.vancouverplayhouse.com

Joni Mitchell is a genius, a Canadian treasure, a brilliant singer-songwriter and one of the seminal popular artists of the last four decades. Lorretta Bailey, Rebecca Shoichet and John Mann perform 32 of her songs beautifully for the most part, backed by a quality four-piece band on the Playhouse stage. If you're a Joni fan, hearing her songs, especially her earlier classics, so lovingly reproduced in this tribute format--songs we'll never hear her sing live that way again with her now-ravaged voice--you can't help but be grateful and at times absolutely thrilled. But there's a lot about this show that I still don't get.

Let's be clear: this is a concert. There's no dialogue linking or commenting on the songs, no dramatic interaction among the singers, nothing to contextualize or reinterpret the lyrics. The singers (dressed in shockingly ugly pseudo-70s outfits by Christine Reimer) move around Yvan Morissette's undistinguished multi-level set, nicely lit by Ereca Hassell, and just sing what are for the most part reproductions of the original arrangements. Nondescript projections sometimes appear on the back wall in a half-hearted attempt to give the songs more dramatic resonance and the concert itself a more theatrical feel.

The program groups the songs by themes: Falling in Love, War, Big Business, etc. But nothing on the stage indicates these connections, and only rarely--for example, when the wife-battering “Not to Blame” is followed directly by “The Magdalene Laundries”--does the order of the songs have an obvious impact. Under Allen MacInnis’ direction one song segues directly into the next without a break, like an extended medley, leaving no time for its meaning to sink in and no cue as to whether the audience should applaud or not. Every so often contemporary history provides its own context. In Rebecca Soichet’s gorgeous a capella version of the antiwar “Fiddle and the Drum,” addressed to “America my friend,“ the line “we have all come to fear the beating of your drum” is chilling. But the songs themselves provide these meanings, not anything in their presentation. It’s hard to know in what sense exactly, as the credits say, the show has been “created by” Allen MacInnis.

But ah, those songs, that music and these singers! Soichet was my favourite with her Joni-like voice, crystalline in the upper registers. Her rendition of “River” to close the first act is breath-taking, but she’s equally strong on other classics like “Carey,” “Dog Eat Dog” and “Coyote.” Spirit of the West’s John Mann, with his very demonstrative style, works a little too hard at the beginning. But he too has a really fine voice and it was interesting to hear songs like “Chelsea Morning” and “Free Man in Paris” sung by a man. His a capella “Shadows and Light” was a highlight, as were “Woodstock“ and “Cactus Tree.” He should do an album of Joni covers. Lorretta Bailey, sometimes frustratingly inaudible, more than redeems herself with a stunningly beautiful “A Case of You,” followed by a moving rendition of the Dylanesque “Come in from the Cold.” And the three harmonize beautifully, especially on “Both Sides Now” in the finale.

The tight, veteran band is led by musical director Greg Lowe on 18 differently tuned guitars, and includes Thomas J.L. Colclough on keyboards and woodwinds, Rene Worst on bass and Graham Boyle on drums. It’s a treat to hear them rock out on “Big Yellow Taxi,” but that’s the only time in the show they’re really featured.

So I’m not sure how much I liked the production, or how it fits into my conception of what a play is, or what it augurs for the Playhouse’s new modern-only mandate. But I left the theatre singing those songs and I’ll be listening to my Joni Mitchell CD’s incessantly over the next few days. Maybe those are the only recommendations that really matter.

Jerry Wasserman

 
 
                       
 
 
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