Oh, Joni Mitchell. My sweet Canadian songstress. My beloved, guitar-picking angel of waxen blonde hair and high vocal register. So close to my heart are your wilting melodies and honest sentiments, particularly Blue. I could listen to Blue for hours upon hours. Will you take me as I am? Even if I’m strung out on another man? You probably would, ‘cause that’s just who you are. Or, who I imagine you to be. I believe in the genuine power of your music and in the relevance it still holds today, which is why I am very sorry to report that the latest reprise of your work ran amuck last Tuesday night. I had such high hopes (how can one not, when Joni is on the mind!) for Circle Game’s success in presenting your tunes anew, but those hopes were quickly let down. Dear Joni, I wish I could say it isn’t so, but it is.
Directed by Anna Kuman and Andrew Cohen, Circle Game sets out to re-imagine or re-invent the music of Joni Mitchell for a millennial audience. I should’ve more seriously considered the use of both “millennial” and “re-imagine” as warning signs. Normally I baulk at both of those terms, but in this case I put my butt in a Firehall Art Centre seat regardless. Did my love for Mitchell’s original recordings and my spectatorial optimism cloud any kind of judgement? Yes. Listen to your gut instinct, Sarah. For goodness sake!
My first impression of the show was fairly good; the set design was intricate and well arranged, calling to mind my grandparents’ rumpus room and perhaps a dishevelled record store corner, amongst other aestheticized things from the ‘70s. The friend I had brought to the show with me also commented on the richness of the set, stating that we must be in for a treat. Alas, not so much. Performers Adriana Ravalli, Sara Vickruck, Kimmy Choi, David Cohen, Scott Perrie and Rowen Kahn gave their roles a fighting chance, but not even the rustic-meets-Pinterest-mood-board backdrop could smooth over the often convoluted, sometimes messy musical delivery. Joni Mitchell’s songs are simply not meant for overt musical theatre adaptation. She’s just too pure, too personally raw. Don’t try and fix things that aren’t broken, or in other words, don’t re-imagine perfectly fine material that you can listen to for free on Spotify. And don’t arrange “California” into a pseudo-jazz tune! If you tamper with those melodies, it better be for good reason.
What could have been an endearing take on a Canadian legend’s life, or a delicate consideration of her influence and musical agenda, was instead an uncomfortable two hours spent watching corny choreography and forced humour. I wanted to like it, I really did! Perhaps I’m just not the right kind of millennial. I feel like the Counting Crows’ cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” bridged the generation gap with more success. Maybe that’s what this show needs? Put Adam Duritz on stage and I’ll reconsider my feelings.
Circle Game will be running at the Firehall Arts Centre until Saturday, May 20. Tickets can be found here.