When Allen MacInnis heard Joni Mitchell say that she wrote her songs from movies in her head, he was relieved. And when she went on to say that she felt her songs might best be performed by actors, he knew he was on the right track.
The reason MacInnis was a little nervous was that he was in the process of taking Mitchell's songs and linking them together for a performance. He wasn't doing a tribute or a biography or a cabaret, but something new, something he called a theatrical concert.
The idea had been planted several years before when he saw actors performing Leonard Cohen songs at a theatre conference in Nova Scotia.
"I was struck by how theatrical the material was," MacInnis said in an interview. "That was about 1995. It occurred to me that you could do it with Joni Mitchell's music."
The idea percolated around in his head for several years. What he was looking for was something theatrical with a beginning, middle and end. Finally he discovered the narrative: he'd use use the arc of a love affair as the link among the songs.
The result is Joni Mitchell: River which opens the new season at The Playhouse tonight. The two-hour show features 29 of Mitchell's songs, including Falling in Love, In the Psych Ward and After Love, Wisdom as well as her hits such as Big Yellow Taxi, Both Sides Now and Free Man in Paris. The performance has no dialogue. Instead, the narrative is told by the song's lyrics.
Joni Mitchell: River was first performed two years ago at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg. MacInnis said that the name River was apparently the original title of Mitchell's influential album Blue. He also chose the title because it is from what he describes as one of the best lyrics ever written: "I wish I had a river I could skate away on."
Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort McLeod, Alta. She was inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame by then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1981. Earlier this year, her 1974 album Court and Spark was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame, as was her 1971 album Blue in 2000.
For MacInnis, the show's creator and director, the idea of using Mitchell's material was a natural since he's been a lifelong Mitchell fan.
"I've always been quite impressed with the quality of her lyrics and complex music," he said.
What he likes about her lyrics, MacInnis said, is that they somehow manage to tell a story from an interesting point of view -- even if you don't always agree with it.
"I would describe it as a real ability to see the complexity and paradise of human beings," MacInnis said.
One of the major technical challenges for River has to do with Mitchell's music. In her repertoire, Mitchell has more than 50 unique tunings for her songs. Instead of tuning her guitar to the standard tuning, Mitchell tunes her guitar to her own ear to create open chords to which she adds finger chords as she plays. And because she writes all her own songs, the tuning is integral to each song.
Trying to tune guitars during the show would have been too time consuming and distracting. As a result River uses 18 pre-tuned acoustic guitars during the show.
The three singers are Lorretta Bailey, Rebecca Schoichet and John Mann. The four-piece band is lead by musical director and guitarist Greg Lowe and includes Graham Boyle on drums, Tom Colclough on piano and saxophone, and Rene Worst on bass.
As far as MacInnis knows, Mitchell hasn't yet seen the show. But she's more than welcome to attend.
"We would love for her to come if she's around," he said.
Joni Mitchell: River continues at The Playhouse, Hamilton and Dunsmuir, until Sunday, Oct. 30th. Tickets range from $16 for anyone 25 or under to $50 for adults at Ticketmaster.ca/604-280-4444 and The Playhouse Box Office, 604-873-3311.
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