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Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

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In an interview in the year 2000, legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell said: “I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy.”

In fact, Mitchell has always thought of herself as a painter first and a musician second, but it’s her extraordinary catalogue of folk music that’s influenced countless of other artists and made her one of the most admired artists of the last century.

It’s also Mitchell’s music that forms the basis for Australian performer Queenie van de Zandt’s wonderfully moving, insightful and musically luminous new cabaret, Blue. 

It would be difficult to leave van de Zandt’s show and not believe Mitchell’s assertion that she sings her sorrow: her greatest songs are all driven by a deep melancholy.

Mitchell is never maudlin, but even some of her more up-tempo material — including the mega-hit Big Yellow Taxi — is imbued with a sense of regret. And in spite of her professional successes, Mitchell’s life has included plenty of struggle.

Thankfully van de Zandt brings a lightness of touch and a sensitivity to the material that ensures Blue is a consistently compelling piece of theatre. She tells Mitchell’s story in first-person, and although she doesn’t attempt any kind of impersonation, she inhabits the great songwriter beautifully.

There are plenty of tribute cabarets, but Blue is set apart by the great skill with which van de Zandt and her co-writer and musical director Max Lambert have interwoven some of Mitchell’s best-known music with stories from significant chapters of the singer’s life. Van de Zandt narrates Mitchell’s story as if she lived it herself, while voiceovers of significant “characters” from Mitchell’s life offer slightly different perspectives on events as they unfold.

River is interpolated into the story of how Mitchell contracted polio at the age of nine and was told she’d never be able to walk again. A Case of You appears when the narrative turns to the many loves of Mitchell’s life, and how she channeled all of that love — and the heartbreak that sometimes arose — into her work. Little Green is used to punctuate the story of Mitchell’s daughter, who was put up for adoption when the songwriter was just a young women in 1965. She didn’t meet her daughter again until 1997.

It’s the story of Mitchell’s lost daughter that forms the backbone of this cabaret, and it’s the part of her life that van de Zandt — who had her first child while writing this show — has clearly connected with most strongly.

Lambert’s musical direction and piano accompaniment is superb, leading Hugh Fraser on Bass and Gary Vickery on guitar. Some of Lambert’s arrangements are quite faithful to the original recordings, while others offer gentle updates or reinventions that remain true to the spirit of Mitchell’s writing but allow van de Zandt’s own vocal style to shine through.

A Case of You breaks away from the stricter rhythms of Mitchell’s recording, while Woodstock is given a jazz and blues-influenced makeover, that in spirit sits somewhere between Mitchell’s version and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s famous cover.

Van de Zandt has an extraordinary ease on stage and a rare ability to transfer that ease to the audience, but it’s her vocal performance that really stands out most in this show. Musical theatre and cabaret fans know van de Zandt has a hugely powerful voice, but she delivers Mitchell’s lyrics with a subtlety and integrity that puts the poetry front and centre, moving seamlessly through the often challenging tonal changes in Mitchell’s vocal lines.

Blue has been put together with such love and admiration that it’ll be entirely irresistible to fans of Mitchell. But those who’ve never dug too deeply into her oeuvre will find this a fascinating look into the life behind many of the greatest songs of the late 20th century.

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Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell finishes its run at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney on August 6.

Photo by Greg Harm

7 responses to “Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

  1. but it’s her extraordinary catalogue of folk music that’s influenced countless of other artists

    Seriously? That absurd mis-statement and incredibly shallow view deserved that readers desert you right there, at the second sentence in! JM hasn’t been writing or performing “folk music” since about 1968, and it is not the reason musicians since then and today revere her. Not least, the album Blue cannot possibly be accurately described that way. Everyone has their own take on her music as it evolved over the decades, particularly in astounding period 1971 (Blue) thru Court & Spark (’74), Hissing of Summer Lawns (’75), Hejira (’76) and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (’77) and Mingus (’79). The last of her “folk” roots was in 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon (the one with Big Yellow Taxi, and Woodstock). It is this period that is the most compelling part of her output–which is certainly not to criticise her output before and after.

    Ben Neutz is clearly not someone who has listened at all attentively, or maybe not at all, to the music (and poetry) contained in these albums. But he could begin his education by listening to ABC-RN’s Andrew Ford’s excellent recent program which dedicated his whole show to expert analysis of her output; and likewise Michael Cathcart’s Books & Arts review of this theatrical production of Blue. Both are available as podcasts. There is also a wealth of books today (though not many worthy ones) including a technical musicological analysis by Lloyd Whitesell in his book “The Music of Joni Mitchell” (ISBN 978-0195307993):

    Yet despite her reputation, influence, and cultural importance, a detailed appraisal of her musical achievement is still lacking. Whitesell presents a through exploration of Mitchell’s musical style, sound, and structure in order to evaluate her songs from a musicological perspective. ….Mitchell’s songs represent a complex, meticulously crafted body of work.

    Then he might come to realize that it isn’t any immature rabid fan base (least of all the folkies who abandoned her early on), but a very broad group of listeners, performers, songwriters, poets and musicologists who believe that JM is not just the equal (or the “female” version) of Bob Dylan, but that artistically, musically and lyrically she is ahead of them all. Incidentally if Bob Dylan deserved the Noble (and he did) then assuredly so does JM. I just hope Sweden is more attentive and informed than Ben Neutz, because she is not well.

  2. “her extraordinary catalogue of folk music”? That accounts for her first 3-5 albums at most. Does the show delve at all into her more jazz-inflected period in the mid to late 70s, her more politically-charged electronic period in the 80s, or her hybrid of all of the above in her later years?

  3. I’m pretty miffed that youve published this review just as the show closes. It’s a gratifyingly good review, and one which Queenie and her musical director will undoubtedly love. But publishing it at this point hasn’t allowed more readers to go along and enjoy the show. Living in Canberra, I wasn’t likely to see it anyway, but heaps of others could. I knew Queenie here years ago and you could see the talent bursting out of her. So pleased she’s been able to harness it for this significant show, and get well-deserved recognition.

    1. Hi Huntress. Unfortunately it was a very brief season at the Hayes Theatre — it only opened on Thursday — so the turnaround was very tight. Almost all of the shows sold out before the season started anyway, but I believe the show is making a return to Sydney next year. Not sure if it will tour elsewhere.

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