Stripped Canadian classic folk songs form the foundation of the Belfry Theatre’s fall offering.
Starting with only melody, harmony and lyrics, Michael Shamata and Tobin Stokes created I Think I’m Fallin’ – The Songs of Joni Mitchell – woven with the Canadian singer-songwriter’s songs of love and heartbreak.
“We started with Michael’s list of favourite songs and my list of favourite songs … we pretty much got our wish list which was great,” said Stokes, an Oak Bay High grad and among its Distinguished Fine Arts Alumni. They started the process about three months ago, choosing songs and sorting out how to build a show “using Joni’s music and words.”
I Think I’m Fallin’ – The Songs of Joni Mitchell features 17 of her songs – from 1968 through 2007 – creating a world of love and longing, of joy and heartbreak.
“The choice of Joni Mitchell was extremely easy,” said Shamata, director. “Her lyrics are exceptional, complex, full of quirks and surprises, and at the same time completely recognizable and easy to relate to. Her music is equally outstanding: melodious, confident, multi-layered and able to insinuate its way into your soul.”
The occasional raw, live recordings found online confirm those “kernels” of her music for Stokes. “When you see those or hear those you know all the other stuff can be taken away and you still have an amazing song.”
They licked the frosting from the songs – often applied by Mitchell, who produces much of her own work – then set about rebuilding the condensed remains that continued to blow them away.
“The thing that really interests me is bringing them down to their kernel. … We took the time to tear each song apart. For me the making of a good song is to strip it down and see what’s left,” said Stokes, the musical director. “There are so many layers to her lyrics, the more we work on it the deeper we go.”
That work continued even into last week as they crafted the final touches leading up to opening this week at Belfry.
Much like their wish list of songs, the director and musical director crafted a must-have cast list that again came to fruition.
“We put together a fantastic amount of talent on stage,” Stokes said.
That “hard-working, super-talented cast” includes Jonathan Gould, Evangelia Kambites, Linda Kidder, Anton Lipovetsky and Brent Jarvis on piano.
Gould starred in Chelsea Hotel and Lipovetsky starred in A Christmas Carol last season. Jarvis, Kambites and Kidder make their Belfry debuts.
“We’ve been doing a lot of creating on the fly, focusing on who has talents in this or that,” Stokes said. “We’re pretty much creating the show on the spot, even though Michael and I started working on it months ago.”
Stokes loves the way Shamata “threaded the story,” creating characters and spinning a tale.
“Nobody’s trying to be Joni … sometimes in a song we’ll have different singers on each verse,” he said. “Some of the pieces are really full sounding productions … then others are just solos.” It features duets, ensemble pieces and some with background vocals.
Sometimes it’s just a voice.
Both Sides Now – recorded by more than 1,100 artists – remains a favourite for Stokes.
“It doesn’t matter how you hear it, how you dress it up it’s just a gorgeous song that you never get tired of hearing,” Stokes said. “We have some gorgeous voices on stage and an open minded cast.”
I Think I’m Fallin’ – The Songs of Joni Mitchell hits the stage at the Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave., Nov. 8 to Dec. 4
“It’s a fresh take. Anyone that knows Joni Mitchell’s songs will get the satisfaction from recognizing her songs,” he said. Those who don’t, “they’re going to experience a lot of Joni’s music told in a new way.”
For more information or to purchase tickets ($20 to $53) visit www.belfry.bc.ca or call 250-385-6815.