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Theatre review: Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell is a theatrical enigma

While this music-fueled show may succeed at its stated intent, there is little understanding of the purpose behind that intention

Members of the cast of Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Produced by the Firehall Arts Centre and created and directed by Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman, Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell is like sitting in on a jam session by a church group of cheery American Idol candidates. The performers are all smiles, energy, and packed full of technical skill, but after two hours of creative covers of classic Joni Mitchell songs, the question remains: is this theatre?

In Circle Game, there is no story, no context, and no dialogue. The show features six multi-talented musician/performers who sing and dance their way through the catalogue of Joni Mitchell in a series of loose vignettes. And while this could be a successful set-up for a musical theatre show, which is the genre most closely resembling the style of the actors’ performance, it is not quite that either as it lacks any sense of stakes, resolution, or coherent storytelling.

Circle Game is more of a concert of Joni Mitchell cover songs performed by a cadre of talented young people – no more, no less.

On that front, as a concert of original arrangements, it succeeds. The songs are beautifully arranged for six-part harmony and, while the modern style lacks the bluesy soul of Joni Mitchell’s originals, the production succeeds in its stated intent – to reimagine the songs of Joni Mitchell for today’s musical palate. The songs are reimagined into a multitude of modern genres which, while not to the taste of this reviewer, are musically pleasing.

But while it is both entertaining and musically impressive, it is also a theatrical conundrum.

The creators state that their purpose was to reimagine the songs of Joni Mitchell. But by billing the show as a “reimagining” and putting it on with theatrical conventions (set, actors, choreography), you imply that the reimagining will happen in a theatrical way, not just musically. But it doesn’t.

The only reimagining here is in the musical arrangements. Without offering a new counterpoint in the way of enhanced narrative or context, Circle Game feels like a display of technical musical skill that is too timid to create a new context or story.

Perhaps it is about the power of music or the modern musical sensibility versus that of the past. Perhaps it is a commentary on the millennial skill of recycling past media into new art. But without any narrative context, the purpose of the show remains unclear. If this show took place in a concert venue, we would not ask what its purpose was. But to put it on in a theatre, with a full set and choreography behind it, implies that the creators are trying to say something. And that something is just not there.

The set design by Carolyn Rapanos is beautifully vintage. From the warm tone of the wood to the array of instruments and 70s rattan, it weaves together the themes of taking something second hand and making it beautiful with the only questionable choice being an array of stand-up microphones (when the performers are clearly already wearing headset microphones) the only dissonant note.

Jessie Van Rijn’s costume design continues that thread with colours and shapes that feel vintage without looking like we’ve stepped into a photograph, while the lighting design by Ian Schimpf is warmly effusive, much like the permanent smiles of the performers.

And these performers are wonderful. Samantha Bourque’s incredible belt blows you back in your seat, while Benjamin Millman’s bluesy take on traditional pop techniques creates a musical intimacy that launches him into the category of a force to keep an eye on. Kimmy Choi buzzes with electric energy, while David Z. Cohen adds warmth and emotional realism to his standout moments, and Scott Perrie’s troubadour like saunter pulls focus from everyone except Adriana Ravali’s soulful simmer.

Ultimately, whether the audience will enjoy Circle Game will be entirely up to them and what they want to get out of the show. If you’re looking to simply sit back in a quiet, dark room and listen to a group of talented people cover classic Joni Mitchell songs, you will love Circle Game. If you’re expecting more, do as the creators ask and try to leave your expectations at the theatre door. Or, at the very least, forget you’re in a theatre and enjoy the concert.

Circle Game: Reimagining the music of Joni Mitchell, created and directed by Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman. A Firehall Arts Centre production. On stage at the Firehall Arts Centre (280 E Cordova St, Vancouver) until February 9. Visit firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.