Emm Gryner has found a role she can 'skate away on'

St. Marys musician one of three cast by Grand Theatre in exploration of Joni Mitchell's legacy

by Stew Slater
St Thomas/Elgin Weekly News
September 15, 2016

For just about any Canadian musician, Joni Mitchell is an icon. “It’s hard to be a female singer/songwriter and not be influenced by her,” St. Marys-based musician Emm Gryner commented in an interview with the Journal Argus last week. “We all look up to her in some way.”

But there are multiple reasons why Gryner — who will join two other cast members and a backing band from Oct. 18 to Nov. 5, performing in a Grand Theatre production based on Mitchell’s music — could be even more inclined to look to Mitchell with reverence. For both musicians, after all, the main focus always seems to be on the creation of works of art that stand the test of time. Within the blink of an eye, they both can take their vocals to places audiences might not have thought possible.

And, perhaps most importantly in the context of the upcoming Grand Theatre show, they both know about being somewhere pursuing a musical career, and longing for their Canadian home.

Gryner does so in her solo work, but particularly through the folk/vocal harmonies trio of which she’s a member, Trent Severn. In the song “Nil Visibility” from Trent Severn’s most recent album Trillium, for example, she sings of Detroit that “I loved you once but home won in the end.”

When it comes to expressions of longing in song for a Canadian hometown, though, there will almost certainly never be anything to match the words of Mitchell, sitting in California when “it’s coming on Christmas,” and dreaming of frozen Saskatchewan.

“It don’t snow here
It stays pretty green
I’m going to make a lot of money
Then I’m going to quit this crazy scene
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on.”

Those words are taken from Mitchell’s “River.” And “River” is also the title of the upcoming Grand Theatre show, a show Gryner describes as “a theatrical concert of Joni’s songs . . . (that) tells a story through her music and lyrics.” She found out about the London theatre company’s plans — part of a 2017 playbill that’s aiming to help celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday — after receiving an email from Grand Artistic Director Susan Ferley asking if she’d be interested in joining the cast.

Gryner is aware of a couple of previous productions (in Vancouver and Winnipeg) of River, created by Toronto-based Young People’s Theatre artistic director Allen Macinnis. Macinnis — who serves as director of the upcoming Grand Theatre interpretation — created roles for three singers. In London, Gryner will be joined by Toronto-based actor Brendan Wall and the woman referred to by some as “the First Lady of Canadian musical theatre,” Louise Pitre.

“When I found out (about Pitre), I texted (Trent Severn bandmate) Dayna (Manning) right away and said, ‘what am I going to do?!!’ I mean, this woman has been nominated for a Tony Award!” Gryner laughed.

Pitre has, indeed, been nominated for a Tony — recognizing accomplishments in New York’s highly-regarded theatre scene. But, through a career that has spanned both sides of the Atlantic on stage, television and in movies, as well as five solo CDs, Pitre has also maintained a connection to the city in which she graduated with a University of Western Ontario degree in Music Education. Certainly, the Grand Theatre would have been thrilled to have been able to secure her name on the River contract.

But, in Gryner (despite her humility to her hometown newspaper), they’ve also signed a performer with significant drawing power.

“We’re all singing the same number of songs, and there are others that we all sing together,” Gryner reported.

Back in June, the Grand Theatre used an ingenious strategy for amassing more than 20 separate guitars that will each be adjusted to one of the unique tunings employed by Mitchell in her music. Show producers let the public know their guitars could have the opportunity to “star” in River; all they had to do was drop them off at the Grand for the musical director of the upcoming production, Greg Lowe, to “audition.” From those that were dropped off, Lowe chose ones that could be set at one of Mitchell’s multiple variations, and kept at that tuning for the duration of the play’s run.

June’s promotion gave Gryner the opportunity to get to know Wall, as well as the band (Pitre couldn’t make it). At the time, they performed versions of Mitchell’s “Coyote” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” And through that experience, she gained a confidence that the people involved in the upcoming show are on the right track to honouring one of Canada’s greatest musicians.

“You do sometimes wonder,” Gryner admitted. “She’s legendary, and what would she think of this . . . But I believe the people working on this, and who created it, really understand the material, and what it takes to do this right.”

Tickets for River can be purchased now at www.grandtheatre.com.

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