The first time I went to the Elbow Room Café, I was haggard and hungover and asked for a glass of water. "Get it yourself, princess!" I was told. Years later, and with many hungover breakfasts under my belt, I have never made the same mistake twice.
Known as much for its sassy service as its eggs and colourful walls, The Elbow Room has long been a cornerstone in the community and a local gem. After all, can you really call yourself a Vancouverite if you've never gotten yelled at in the Elbow Room Café?
Produced and commissioned by Zee Zee Theatre, Elbow Room Café: The Musical is the brain child of playwright/lyricist Dave Deveau and composer/lyricist Anton Lipovetsky. It weaves together several stories against the backdrop of the Elbow Room's celebrity-studded walls. There is Tim (Steven Greenfield) and Tabby (Emma Slipp), a couple of southwest American tourists visiting Vancouver for their anniversary. There is Jackie (Christine Quintana), who is meeting her ex Jill (Olivia Hutt). There is a trio stumbling in from an all-night bachelorette party (Nathan Kay as Stephen, Stephanie Wong as Beth, Synthia Yusuf as Amanda). There is the sassy but loyal long-time employee, Nelson (Justin Lapeña). And, of course, there are Patrice (llan Zinyk) and Bryan (David M. Adams), partners and the bickering owners of the Elbow Room.
As the play unfolds, so too do conflicts and struggles in the interpersonal relationships of the characters: Tim's homophobia and discomfort are hinted as stemming from his own closeted desire for cross-dressing; Jill and Jackie are faced with a revelation that changes the course of their future together; Amanda second-guesses her upcoming wedding, caught in a tug-of-war between the wishes of her two friends. Bryan resists coming to terms with his aging and deteriorating health, all while bickering with Patrice, who wants to get married—a "dusty institution" which Bryan doesn't believe in.
The play is everything that the Elbow Room Café is: sassy, colourful, musical. But it also touches on the history of the community, on the lingering effects of the HIV/AIDS crisis, on why they raise money for A Loving Spoonful—an organization that anyone who has ever left food on their plate at the Elbow Room has donated to. The audience's reactions speak to the recognizable aspects of the Elbow Room Café and its many quirks. They cheered and laughed at many of the moments we have all experienced: the service, the sultry pictures of Tom Selleck on the wall, being told to "read the rules!”. Amidst all of this, the glowing highlight had to be Tabby's high-energy, cabaret-style "A Girl's Gotta Eat," which left the audience cheering and hollering.
Perhaps it's the nostalgia, the familiarity, and the comfort that so touches the audience, much like the Elbow Room Café itself. The play finishes with a campy and borderline clichéd happy ending—but, then again, what else could we expect from the Elbow Room Café?
Elbow Room Café: The Musical runs until March 12 at York Theatre. You can find more information and tickets here.