By Alan Cho
Before being declared the most important woman song-writer of all time and presented with the Order of Canada, Joni Mitchell was the zeitgeist of the ’70s. Guitar in hand and a voice stained with nicotine and wisdom beyond her years, she helped guide a generation in a time of decaying authority. Never angry but always passionate, her songs were resonate confessionals. This was Joni Mitchell. Alberta Theatre Projects’ latest, Joni Mitchell: River, is not.
River manages to flatten the music of Joni Mitchell into a superficial product for mass consumption. Everything in the show seems false, a sugar coated affair careful not to tamper with the source material. This hesitancy overpowers the entire show. Not surprising, considering the play itself.
Allen MacInnis’ script is virtually non-existent, coming off as the track listing off a junior high Joni Mitchell mix tape. There are no bookends, no dramatic transitions or even vignettes; the entire play is back to back to back songs. It’s an onslaught of music testing the patience of even the most ardent Mitchell fan, with 28 of Joni Mitchell’s most well worn songs. River forgoes a conventional narrative to bring audiences a nebulous and overextended edition of Canadian Idol without the relief of bitchy repartee from judges.
And it’s staged just like an episode of Canadian Idol, director Denise Clarke getting her actors to perform stiffly in front of a mike. “These are actors, not singers,” it’s proudly declared. But this isn’t a play, it’s a concert. Retrofitting the play with actors seems to be a waste, as they do nothing but stand there and sing. Each actor attempts to emote as much as possible, but in the end, harmony needs to take precedence. But thank God for Sharon Stearns, the saviour and bright spot in River. Possessing an uncanny likeness to Mitchell, her voice has a richness and fullness paying actual tribute to the spirit of Joni Mitchell. Her rendition of “A Case of You” is heart-wrenching and brings the room to a halt. Onalea Gilbertson brings a good energy to an otherwise dull affair and weight to “The Fiddle and the Drum.” Those flashes of greatness are few and far between, though, and the play settles into a smear of the mundane. But then Jeff Gladstone decides to open his mouth.
Seemingly stumbling off the set of some misbegotten TGIF sitcom, Jeff’s voice is a monotone drone, draining any sense of emotion out of songs like “Woodstock”. His decision to play everything in an awkwardly slapstick style seems conscious, but watching him clap out of time and jerk his body like a spastic choking on jagged Pez on the song “Be Cool”, you get an uneasy feeling his sense of rhythm and harmony stayed in his mother’s womb.
River doesn’t capture the spirit of Joni Mitchell, but like its star Jeff Gladstone, the production is awkward. A glorified cover band show, River only scratches the surface of the spirit of Joni Mitchell. Once you step out of the theatre, River will have faded away into static.