Elbow Room Café: The Musical opened at York Theatre last week, beginning its 10 day stint at the historic Vancouver venue. The musical is a menagerie of love, relationships, and legacy, with a cast whose collective joie de vivre overcomes any minor flaws amidst the colourful four-letter words.
A ‘philosopher’ once wrote: “you need three things to have a good life. One, a meaningful relationship; two, a decent job of work; and three, to make a difference.” Many of us can claim to have been fortunate enough to have ticked off the first two boxes, but the third one is decidedly trickier to pin down. This production tells the story of a couple, and a place, that has done just that.
While focusing on the tale of Bryan Searle and Patrice Savoie – owners of the iconic Vancouver breakfast spot for the last 32 years – playwright Dave Deveau’s homage to the famous Davie Street duo is just as much about the cafe itself and the people who inhabit it. And this is where the joyful, beating heart of the performance lies.
Set on a typical early morning one weekend, the cafe’s protagonists include a couple from Tennessee celebrating their anniversary; the tail-end of a typically ruinous bachelorette party; and a delicate, engaging lesbian couple trembling with longing and regret.
Each table has its own tale to tell, and is artfully recanted through snippets of conversations, comically conducted by Patrice. The café’s unique selling point, as many Vancouverites know, is Savoie and his fellow servers’ slightly ‘unorthodox’ attitude to their customers. For the uninitiated, this means that diners need to have a slightly thicker skin than usual, and the energy to get your own damn coffee. But “Canadians are friendly, apologetic people!” Tennessee Tim protests. “F*** off!” is the response.
Some of these personalities could feel a little clichéd in the wrong hands, but the talented cast brings them to life with nuance, never missing a beat. From Steven Greenfield’s hilarious turn as a Tennessee out-of-towner, to Olivia Hutt’s awkward, pained Jill, the vocal performances are strong and the characters relatable.
Christine Quintana’s solo in the early stages is as forceful as it is affecting, and Justin Lapeña’s Nelson (among other cameos) is joy incarnate, covered in glitter. Every character plays a key role in gripping the audience by the hand and waltzing them through the 120 minutes of stage time.
There are exceptions, of course. Some of the more retrospective ‘background’ stories can feel a bit forced, the jokes occasionally fall a little flat, and you could probably argue that this is very much a performance for people who already know and love the (in)famous establishment. But, as one character notes, “There’s magic here.”
Deveau does a fine job of focusing in on relationships, and it is the (sometimes hard) truths buried in Patrice and Bryan’s not-quite-marriage (wonderfully brought to life by balanced performances from Allan Zinyk and David Adams) that really hit home. “You won’t stop fighting, you’ll just stop wondering what the fights mean,” is a succinct description of similar long term relationships.
The musical is a glorious mix of silliness, elation and poignancy. As Elbow Room steers its way towards the conclusion, Patrice and Bryan begin to discuss the idea of their legacy. The audience is gently nudged into reflecting on what it might be, not only for the ostensibly curmudgeonous cafe owners, but also for themselves.
Out of the three things necessary for a good life, it is ‘making a difference’ that worries Bryan the most: what mark will he and Patrick leave behind on the many lives of those they’ve touched over the years? Patrice answers him quite beautifully: “We have so much fun,” he says.
This is the essence of the Elbow Room Café, and indeed its musical tribute. The two men have created a place that cultivates playful interactions between complete strangers, and encourages everyone to just lighten up a bit. The musical captures this perfectly, bringing the café’s charm, enthusiasm and exuberance to the stage —Elbow Room Café is a little piece of joy.
Where: York Theatre – 639 Commercial Drive
When: Until March 12
Tickets: At The Cultch, $10-$54