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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Elbow Room Café: The Musical serves up a piece of Vancouver history (with a side of abuse)

How do you honour a Vancouver landmark and its real-life colourful cast of characters? For theatre artists Dave Deveau, Cameron Mackenzie and Anton Lipovetsky, you do it the best way you know how. With a musical.

In Elbow Room Café: The Musical, the iconic Vancouver eatery comes to life through the eyes of its long-term partners in business and in life, Patrick Savoie and Brian Searle, along with a colourful menagerie of patrons that have walked through its doors.

“It’s important for people to know we are not creating a documentary musical,” says Deveau, the show’s writer. “We’re not talking about historical events, but rather the spirit of this magical, chaotic, and wonderfully busy atmosphere with these two open-hearted men as its anchor.”

“There is a meta-theatrical element to the show as well,” adds Anton Lipovetsky, who is writing the music and co-writing the lyrics with Deveau. “It explores the theme of legacy, but it is also a legacy piece, as we explore these two men and their landmark café.”

A Vancouver institution since 1983, the Elbow Room Café has garnered an international reputation for its big-ass breakfasts served with a side-order of abuse.  Originally opened in 1983 in what was the home of Vancouver’s first Mayor, the restaurant made its move to its current location on the fringes of Vancouver’s West End and Yaletown in 1996. A staunch supporter of the local community, they have also raised thousands of dollars over the years for A Loving Spoonful, a local charity that appropriately provides free meals for those living with HIV/AIDS. The money has been primarily collected as patrons are embarrassed into making a donation if they don’t eat everything on their plate.

Its reputation for surly service has always been a draw for the establishment, including Lipovetsky who recalls his own experience at the restaurant at age thirteen.

“I have this visceral, emotional memory of going to the restaurant with my parents,” laughs Lipovetsky who had a tough time dealing with the ribbing from Savoie. “I was not ready for that kind of abuse. I think he called me princess and asked ‘what does the princess want’. Patrice went at me harder when I tried to defend myself.”

Working on the musical and getting to know Savoie and Searle, Lipovetsky now finds it tough reconciling that experience with what he knows of them now. “It is interesting to come back ten years later to find out just what sweethearts they really are.”

The musical was originally conceived after Mackenzie, who directs the show, heard about Schwartz’s: The Musical at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre. Celebrating Montreal’s most famous deli, it wasn’t a huge leap for Mackenzie to make a connection back home.

“Cameron had been working in Montreal and jokingly said to the folks at Centaur that the Vancouver equivalent to Schwartz’s would be a musical about the Elbow Room,” says Deveau. “Two years later we’re sitting in the Elbow Room and Cam said he could vividly see what a musical based on the café might look like.  There is such a constant sense of theatricality about the café that it could write itself.”

Idea in hand, the next step was to get Savoie and Searle on board with the idea of a musical based on their lives and life’s work.

“When we came up with the idea, we went over to their place and somewhat nervously pitched the idea to them,” says Deveau. “It comes with a lot of responsibility to write about people you know and we knew we would need to tread carefully.”

But any thoughts of the two men rejecting the idea were quickly dismissed. “The only stipulation that they had was that because Brian was now 82 years-old they asked that we don’t take too much time in putting it together as he would like to see it,” says Deveau. “Not of course, that he or Patrice are going anywhere soon.”

The two also gave the team full reign in creating the musical as they saw fit. “Certainly they could have been involved if they wanted to,” says Deveau, “but they haven’t seen the show and have no idea what they are in for. It will be really interesting to see how they react to it on opening night.”

A work in progress, this iteration of Elbow Room Café: The Musical is a unique musical-in-development co-production between Deveau and Cameron’s Zee Zee Theatre and Studio 58 at Langara College.

“It is a rare gift to be able to write for 25 voices,” says Deveau, “and there are huge mutual benefits for our company, the school and the students with this model.”

“All of the students are really gung-ho,” says Lipovetsky. “It is fun to be able to explore something when you are the first person to have played that particular role, and then to have something so uniquely Vancouver is great fun too.”

Elbow Room Cafe: The Musical plays Studio 58 at Langara College (100 West 49th Ave, Vancouver) March 19-29. Visit for tickets and information.

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