Two years ago Zee Zee Theatre presented a workshop version of Elbow Room Café: The Musical at Studio 58. Written by Zee Zee playwright-in-residence Dave Deveau, who also serves as co-lyricist with composer Anton Lipovetsky, the workshop was directed by Zee Zee’s Managing Artistic Director, Cameron Mackenzie. It was such a hit that the creative team decided to move towards a full production, which is of course never a sure thing given the expense and risk of any musical without a proven pedigree or the imprimatur of Disney. That Elbow Room honours the owners of a quirky local landmark in Vancouver’s gay village would only seem to further segment its potential audience. However, none of this deterred the Vancouver East Cultural Centre’s Executive Director, Heather Redfern, who came on board as a co-presenter, and who together with Deveau and Mackenzie presided over last night’s world premiere of the full musical at The Cultch’s York Theatre, where the work runs until March 12. Get your tickets now, as this baby is going to be a hit (and I’m not just saying that because I’m on Zee Zee’s board).
For anyone not in the know (and, honey, that really is a pity), The Elbow Room Café is a legendary breakfast spot opened by life and business partners Patrice (Patrick) Savoie and Bryan Searle in its original cramped quarters on Jervis Street in 1983. It moved to its current location on Davie Street in 1996. The Elbow Room is renowned for the caustic verbal abuse served up by Savoie, Searle and their employees alongside orders of pancakes, eggs and toast. Savoie, in particular, treats all customers with equal disdain, and many Hollywood stars have lined up for a chance to be on the receiving end of his rebarbative wit. But the Elbow Room has also long been a driving charitable force in the community, with a strictly enforced donation policy for every plate upon which food remains—monies that are passed on to A Loving Spoonful, the volunteer-driven, non-profit society that has provided free meals to people living with HIV/AIDS in Greater Vancouver since 1989. More quietly, Savoie and Searle worked behind the scenes in the early days of the pandemic to ease the burden of those living with the disease, which included retaining on staff several employees who were HIV-positive.
All of this is referenced in the musical, a contemporary day in the life of the café that coalesces around several parallel storylines. Tim (Steven Greenfield) and Tabby (a terrifically brassy Emma Slipp) are married tourists from Tennessee who stop into the café on their way to Stanley Park, and whose initially wide-eyed and then increasingly participatory observations of staff and patrons’ camp antics mimics the fish-out-water scenario of Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Show. Jackie (the immensely talented Christine Quintana) is a regular waiting to meet her former girlfriend, Jill (Olivia Hutt, also a stand-out), who arrives late, as expected, but also carrying (quite literally) some very unexpected news. Finally, Stephen (a queerly acerbic Nathan Kay), Beth (Stephanie Wong) and Amanda (Stephanie Yusuf) are part of a bachelorette party that’s gone off the rails; the trio comes into the Elbow Room ostensibly to sober Amanda up before she hops a plane to Mexico to marry her fiancé, but Stephen and Beth seem to have very different ideas about how best to go about this, or whether this is even what their friend really wants. All of this is set against the central drama of the musical, with the habitual bickering of Patrick and Bryan (an expertly matched Allan Zinyk and Bryan D. Adams) threatening to lead to a breaking point as a result of Patrick’s desire to get married and retire, leaving the café in the hands of their capable and long-suffering employee, Nelson (the hard-working Justin Lapeña, who also doubles as Chiffon, a drag fairy only Tim can see, and a Mountie stripper who gives the uptight Beth a much-needed lap dance late in the musical).
Amanda’s ambivalence about marriage and Patrick’s belief in the institution is just one of the queer/straight binaries that Deveau and Lipovetsky play with. There’s also the queerness within straight marriage that we gradually discover through the unfolding relationship between Tim and Tabby, with the former eventually embracing his glittery inner drag diva, and with the latter showing who in fact wears the pants in this family via the show-stopping number “A Girl’s Gotta Eat!” Indeed, part of the immense charm of Elbow Room Café: The Musical is that it knowingly traffics in the stereotypes and sentimentality of the musical genre at the same time as it exuberantly subverts and deconstructs them. Some of the jokes and one-liners in the book are groan-inducingly obvious and hammy (especially as delivered by Zinyk’s chief buffon, Patrick, who at one point wades into the audience looking for his next mark); but in every collective laugh or sigh of recognition we also experience a community in formation. That’s what we see in the camp aesthetic onstage in this work, and also in the legendary social gathering place upon which it is based. Like Tim and Tabby, if you’re not initially in on the joke then it’s up to you to find out why—and to find your own way in.
Not everything about Elbow Room Café: The Musical is perfect. In its current state it actually feels a bit book-heavy, with the exposition especially weighty in the overly long first act. One consequence of this is that before they come together, the structural shifts between each storyline sometimes mean that the bulk of the performers on stage are for long stretches left with very little to do except mime some bits of business at their respective tables. Overall, however, this is clearly a labour of love on everyone’s part, a musical that despite the relative intimacy of its scale (including a crackerjack all-female band of Sally Zori, Clare Wyatt and Molly MacKinnon) is so very big in its heart.