Appreciating Joni’s Lyrics and Music
The show Joni Mitchell: River is the season opener on stage at London’s Grand Theatre. Before I can tell you about it, I need to tell you what it’s not.
It’s not the story of Joni’s life; there are no words spoken, nor any account acted. It’s not an impersonation or impression of Joni; each singer is himself or herself. It’s not a re-creation of Joni’s songs; none of the songs actually sound like Joni. It’s not a musical; it’s a concert.
Now, here’s what Joni Mitchell: River is—it is an enchanting evening, presenting a fascinating interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s songs. It is three powerful singers who draw you into the lyrics. It is four impressive musicians interpreting the compositions.
If you grew up listening to Joni on pop radio in the 1970s, you might not recognize the songs in this show—there are several I’m not familiar with, and even those I know well are not presented in the way we usually heard them. But let me stress that this is not a bad thing—in fact, I paid attention to the lyrics and message for probably the first time. Of course, there are also familiar favourites, such as the ever-popular Big Yellow Taxi.
Creator and director Allen MacInnis has asked his three singers to decipher the lyrics and they have done so with great passion. Mitchell’s songbook is not easy to sing—they call for stretching ranges, changing tempo, and moving from major keys to minor. The three singers all have impressive vocal ranges and the power to belt. Occasionally they sing solo, other times in harmony.
Louise Pitre (best known for originating the role of Donna in Mamma Mia! on Broadway, after performing it in Toronto) is at home in London as a graduate of Western University. Pitre’s deep, enveloping voice is perfect for the tortured love songs, such as A Case of You. In this tale of unrequited love, Mitchell says “Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine. You taste so bitter and so sweet, Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling, And I would still be on my feet.” Pitre makes us feel Joni’s hurt.
Emm Gryner is recognizable to Lambton Country residents, growing up near Forest when she was still known as Mary. As part of the band Trent Severn, she is a popular at the Grand Bend Beach Concerts. Gryner gives a gut wrenching interpretation of Mitchell’s Magdalene Laundries where young prostitutes were sent to work. As well, she is stunning in her a capella numbers.
Brendan Wall has a rich, powerful voice and uses it to tell the story of each song he sings. His Woodstock makes us feel like we were there in 1969. Wall’s experience includes Mirvish’s Once and War Horse.
Joni Mitchell, known for her guitar playing, made each of her compositions unique with her own style of tuning her guitar. It would have been impossible for musician Greg Lowe to tune his guitar for each song. Instead he reached out to the London community, asking to borrow guitars for the duration of this show. Londoners generously lent the Grand their beloved instruments, so 18 different guitars are used in the performance, all tuned differently. Photos of these guitars are featured in the program with the make, and lender’s name. There are some very unusual prize pieces.
One of my guilty pleasures at Christmas time is watching the DVD Love Actually. In the jumble of characters, Emma Thompson plays a wife and mother who tells her husband “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.” Later, she finds out that her husband (played by the late Alan Rickman) bought an expensive, romantic piece of jewellery, but it’s not for her. Instead he gives her a Joni Mitchell CD, and while she goes through turmoil about how to confront him, Mitchell’s Clouds is heard. That same heartbreak is present when the trio sings Clouds at the conclusion of this theatrical concert, and I was reminded of that scene. Interestingly, Director MacInnis refers to the movie in his program notes.
The last time I was so moved by a theatrical concert was Stratford Festival’s Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in 2010. This show, like that one, features singers who present the music to you as if it is a special dish they created just for you.
And a final thought: If Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize for Literature, then certainly, after hearing her poetry in this concert, we should nominate Joni Mitchell.