Review: Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (Theatre 20, Theatre Passe Muraille, The Firehall Arts Centre)

Chelsea HotelThe songbook of Leonard Cohen comes to the Toronto stage

It’s not unusual that I don’t know what to expect when I go to see a show, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t know much about Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, which opened on Thursday at Theatre Passe Muraille.

It is unusual that after seeing the show, I still can’t really say exactly what it was. It’s passionate, moving, melancholy, ethereal, rowdy, haunting, sexy, and funny. It’s circus-like (Cirque de Soleil, not Ringling Brothers). There’s a narrative thread but it isn’t a musical. It’s not a cabaret.

It’s theatre. I really enjoyed it.

The story, as much as there is one, takes place in a room in the Chelsea Hotel where a writer (Jonathan Gould) is trying to write his way to redemption. He’s surrounded by hundreds of crumpled pages of failed lyrics and accompanied by five demons. Or maybe they’re angels. Or ghosts. I wasn’t sure. They looked quite ghostly with their white powdered faces.

Cohen’s songs and poetry tell the story. The songs weren’t written as a linear narrative, and although they did tell a story in a way, it wasn’t that effective. It also didn’t really matter. All I really needed to know was, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “It’s written on the walls of this hotel, you go to heaven, once you’ve been to hell.”

Tracey Power conceived the idea and choreographed Chelsea Hotel. She also directs and performs. Her slow, sultry rendition of I’m Your Man, complete with a cigar/kazoo was fabulously sexy.

The music was arranged and directed by Steven Charles. The arrangements were interesting, sometimes quite unexpected and surprising. They worked well for me because they helped me accept and enjoy the singing and Cohen’s words without missing Cohen’s voice. At least, not missing it too much.

It also made me hear the lyrics in a new way. Certainly Famous Blue Raincoat and Bird on a Wire have never made me cry before. They did last night.

It might not work if you love Cohen’s words and want to hear them in his voice. I was talking to someone at intermission, and he wasn’t sure that he liked it. He thought it was an interesting idea but “really, only Cohen can sing Cohen.” My friend Pat had much the same reaction–she wanted Cohen’s growly monotone.

I loved the way that Marshall McMahen’s set used the crumpled pieces of paper to show the frustration of trying to write and the length of time the writer had been trying to write. One of the piles of paper was pretty much a tower over the bed. The walls were covered in verses and fragments of lyrics and poetry.

Having song lyrics written in unexpected places was a theme that carried on to Barbara Clayden’s costumes. They were written directly on to some of the clothes, they were written on scraps that were pinned to the clothes, they were written on the rags that were tied in one of the performers’ hair. Cohen’s words were everywhere.

Chelsea Hotel is very much an ensemble piece. The six performers all sing, dance, play a variety of instruments, and act. I lost count of how many instruments there were. More than ten. I really like it when the performers are also the musicians. If feels as if the singing and music are more strongly linked than when there is a band.

I love it when people enjoy a show so much that they can’t wait for the applause to end before they say something, or when they turn to a stranger and say how wonderful the show was. Both of those happened last night.

Through the applause I could hear people saying “Wow! That was fabulous” and “That was great” and “I really enjoyed that.” As I was leaving the theatre a man I didn’t know said to me “Wasn’t that wonderful?”

And it was.


  • Chelsea Hotel. The Songs of Leonard Cohen is playing at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave) until February 21
  • Performances are at Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30pm, Matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2:00pm, Thursday at 1:00pm
  • Tickets prices range from $25 to $35 with a small number of  pwyc at the door for Saturday matinee
  • Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-504-7529 or at the bow office

Photo of Ben Elliott, Rachel Aberle, Jonathan Gould, Tracey Power, Christina Cuglietta, Sean Cronin by Racheal McCaig