Cold water on old favourites

by Robert Everett-Green
Toronto Globe and Mail
February 5, 2002

Joni Mitchell: River
Directed by Allen MacInnis
Starring Andrea Menard, Corrine Koslo and Thom Allison
At the Prairie Theatre Exchange
In Winnipeg
Rating: **

When Toronto's Harbour-front Centre was preparing a lavish tribute to Joni Mitchell last fall, someone got the idea of taking a video camera into the street and asking people to sing a few bars from any of her songs. Almost everybody chose Big Yellow Taxi, confirming that public awareness of the work of one of Canada's most original songwriters was less than encyclopedic.

During the tribute itself, Mitchell opined that actors may be her best interpreters, because her songs contain so much narrative and scenic detail. The comment, and perhaps the video as well, convinced director Allen MacInnis that the time was right to turn a posse of actors loose on the Mitchell catalogue.

The result is Joni Mitchell: River, a sincere but disappointing homage to MacIniss's favourite songwriter. Instead of making the case for the continued vigour of Mitchell's work, the production inadvertently portrays it as an honorable relic of the past.

The show is billed as a theatrical concert, which is an exact description. The performances of 27 Mitchell songs, by the cast of three, exploit the actors' physical training, and are in that sense theatrical. But the actors never engage each other, and seldom even sing together. The dramatic, anecdotal scenarios of many of the songs apparently didn't strike MacInnis as anything the audience needed to see, except in the gestures of each of the individual singers.

Possibilities for movement are in any case limited by D├ęborah E. Judah's set, a series of raised irregular ramps that square the space around the four-piece band. The actors mostly pace from one corner to another, or pick a spot and work the song. Andrea Menard performs the highly scenic Coyote, for instance, while sitting in a kitchen chair.

The songs succeed each other without pause, in thematic clusters with headings such as Love on the Psych Ward. MacInnis has chosen from all parts of Mitchell's 35-year output, which has the useful effect of showing that her stylistic evolutions, from folk through pop to jazz fusion, haven't changed the distinctive tone of her voice.

The cast are not slaves to Mitchell's recorded versions, though arranger Greg Lowe has retained the singer's most typical traits. Frisky, prominent rhythm-guitar lines and sharply syncopated drums drive many of his arrangements. Perhaps he should have strayed further from the source. A lot of his handiwork breathes the musty odour of a bar band churning through boomer classics.

The problem was compounded by Judah's costume designs. For much of the show, the singers sport the kind of fanciful bohemian threads that were all the rage when Big Yellow Taxi first went on the radio. That choice of costuming, like Lowe's arrangements, doesn't tell us why Mitchell should matter now. Even timeless songs are hurt by a dated presentation.

But the main problem with this show is that its central idea has come and gone. When Mitchell began her career, it was normal for people like her to stand, strum and sing. In 1970 it might have been a revelation to see a more physically engaged performance by trained singer-actors. But we've since witnessed an enormous infusion of theatrical values into the performance of popular music, through 20 years of music videos. A better grade of gesture is no longer enough.

A stale concept dooms everything it touches. All three principals in this show have fine theatre voices, and each made a credible claim to some portion of Mitchell's work during Sunday's performance. A gospel-style, a cappella version of Shadows and Light, led by Thom Allison, and featuring the versatile band's voices as well, briefly took this production to a place well worth visiting. But much of the rest of MacInnis's tombeau turned out to be a true mausoleum.

Joni Mitchell: River continues at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg through Feb. 17. For Information call: 204-942-5483.


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