Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen

Creative song-and-dance tribute to Canadian artist hits Toronto

Presented by Theatre 20 with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille
A Firehall Arts Centre Production
Directed and Conceived by Tracey Power
Musical Direction and Arrangements by Steven Charles

Photo by Racheal McCaig.

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen has entertained audiences out west since its Vancouver debut in in 2012, and this February sees its Toronto premiere at Theatre Passe Muraille. The two-act musical begins in a paper-strewn room of the Chelsea Hotel, as a young Cohenesque character (Jonathan Gould) struggles with the writing process, haunted by memories and visions. As he agonizes at his desk, five mysterious, anonymous figures (played by Rachel Aberle, Sean Cronin, Christina Cuglietta, Ben Elliott and Tracey Power) appear, serenading him with a vast selection of Leonard Cohen’s songs.

The play is essentially a montage of Cohen’s work that weaves the bard’s songs together with very little dialogue between numbers, relying on song sequence to provide a narrative arc of sorts. What Chelsea Hotel does well is portray the negotiations at the heart of Cohen’s love songs, with the female performers providing interesting visual embodiments of the spectres that so vividly haunt Cohen’s oeuvre. It had never quite struck me how emotionally exhausting it must be to be a ladies’ man. The multi-talented cast deserves kudos for sustaining this energetic two-hour marathon of singing, dancing and instrument playing.

However, many of the musical's numbers (especially in the first half) play around with the tempo and style of the original tracks, and in most cases it just doesn’t work. For example, changing the tone of “Suzanne” from meditative to cheerful severely undercuts the power of a song that is beloved precisely for its plaintive sense of longing. Thankfully, performances in the second half adhere more closely the style of the originals, with the notable exception of a hard rock version of “The Future” that paradoxically excises Cohen's more provocative lyrics.

It’s a risky business toying with perfection. Chelsea Hotel provides an energetic synopsis of Cohen’s legendary catalogue, however, the whole is not the sum of its parts in what is nonetheless an admirable effort.

Chelsea Hotel runs until February 21, 2016 at Theatre Passe Muraille. Visit for more information and to buy tickets.

Show Dates: 
Wed, 2016-02-03 - Sun, 2016-02-21
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