Spoonfuls of mirth and soul in 'Elbow Room Cafe: The Musical'

By Zoe Grams

"Elbow Room Cafe: The Musical." (Emily Cooper/Supplied)

"Elbow Room Cafe: The Musical." (Emily Cooper/Supplied)

At their finest, family dinners are noisy, spirited and offer a good deal of comfortable insults. All are traits of dining experiences at the iconic Elbow Room Cafe on Davie St., where sass is served alongside slaw, as explored in a new musical of the same name that runs at The Cultch until March 12.

Written by award-winning playwright Dave Deveau and directed by Cameron Mackenzie, Elbow Room Cafe: The Musical is the fifth full-length collaboration from the husband-and-husband creative duo.

Inspired by a Montreal production celebrating Schwartz’s deli, the pair were contemplating what could be a suitable tribute to a Vancouver institution while, you guessed it, eating at the Elbow Room.

The concept evolved into a celebration, not only of the eatery but of the couple who have successfully owned it for more than 30 years, and who became close friends to Deveau and Mackenzie: Patrick Savoie and Bryan Searle. Over an initially nerve-wracking then inspirational dinner, a musical was born.

“It was entirely possible [Savoie and Searle] would say no – and somehow more terrifying if they would say yes!” recounted Deveau. “They were deeply honoured and so generous with giving me full access to both of them, to the paper archive of every article that had been written about the cafe, and to the staff. From that original idea to this week when we’re opening, it’s been four years.”

In that time, Deveau and Mackenzie, alongside talented lyricist and musician Anton Lipovetsky, developed an on-stage world reminiscent of the bright walls and brighter characters of the cafe. An early version of the production was staged at Studio 58 in 2015 Deveau is keen to point out vast differences in storyline and cast numbers in this new iteration. He jokes, “You may have seen the appetizer, but stick around because the main course opens this week.”

The delectable show centres around owners Patrick and Bryan, asking deeply human questions about aging, legacy and love. They’re joined by a lesbian couple who, after a year apart, are considering rekindling their relationship; a bachelorette party who are pausing during an all-nighter on the Granville strip; and Tabby and Tim, unsuspecting tourists from Tennessee.

“Through the magic of the cafe itself all of these people end up in the vortex that is the Elbow Room,” Deveau explains.

“There’s something about the world of the Elbow Room that feels a bit like that moment in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy steps out of black and white into full colour, seeing things she’s never seen before. I do think the Elbow Room, poetically, is that for a lot of people. You step into a space playing by a different set of rules you didn’t know possible. And there’s comfort in that.”

This sense of community, safety and warmth is key in both the musical and Deveau’s deep respect for the Elbow Room. He cites a survey released by the Vancouver Foundation that showed Vancouverites’ biggest concern was not the cost of housing, or unemployment, but loneliness.

“That haunted me,” he confessed. “I thought ‘We’re this upbeat city and yet we’re not actually finding places to effectively talk to one another and passionately care.’ To me, the magic of the Elbow Room is Bryan and Patrick have found the right recipe that enables strangers to talk to one another. That’s hugely unique and important.”

And, as Deveau points out, there is something radical about being an open, queer space for more than 34 years. “They pioneered a visibility which a lot of people take for granted in a contemporary context.”

These clear moral undercurrents are playfully offset by musical numbers which Deveau describes as “over the top and campy and outrageous.” Songs include Do You Have A Gun Or A Knife, summarizing the playful squabbles that make up a quintessential Elbow Room Experience; I’m Piaf in which Patrick imagines life as a singer; and Small World in a Big City – the Elbow Room’s own tagline and, arguably, the headlining piece in the show.

The interlacing of quick one-liners and thoughtful moments is reflected in Deveau’s own comments during the interview.

“I do think there’s something really important about looking at legacy,” he concluded. “We talk about legacy in the show, and it’s beyond queer legacy: taking stock of the time each of us occupy on this planet, and what we’re doing with it, and whether it’s resonating for anyone other than ourselves. If it’s not, maybe we’re doing it wrong.”

Judging by the warmth and heart emanating from Elbow Room Cafe: The Musical, Deveau is unquestionably doing something very right.

Elbow Room Cafe: The Musical runs from March 1 to 12 at The Cultch. Tickets: tickets.thecultch.com