Elbow Room Cafe: The Musical captures spirit of iconic Vancouver hub

Musical pays tribute to legendary Vancouver eatery in the LGBTQ community.

It’s not every day you experience a musical that takes place in a local setting, and Elbow Room Café: The Musical is exactly that. Iconic for serving up breakfast with an attitude since 1983, The Elbow Room is a landmark in Vancouver’s LGBTQ neighbourhood, Davie Street. Zee Zee Theatre and The Cultch’s production of Elbow Room Café takes a peek into the relationship of real-life restaurant owners Patrice and Bryan, set against the backdrop of their beloved establishment.

With book and lyrics by Dave Deveau, and music and lyrics by Anton Lipovetsky, Elbow Room is a musical equipped with crowd-pleasing elements such as exciting dance numbers, bashful comedy (including many gay-themed jokes), fabulous drag performances, and lovely songs, all performed by some of Vancouver’s top talent.

As Patrice, Allan Zinyk is fun and zany, and has the charm to keep the audience rooting for him. David Adam’s portrayal of Patrice’s partner, Bryan, is a wonderful counterpart, encompassing great sensitivity and heart.

One of the highlights of the show is listening to Christine Quintana sing. Playing the role of Jackie, the ballad that Quintana sings in anticipation of reuniting with her character’s ex-girlfriend is heartbreaking.

Synthia Yusuf delivers a stand-out performance as bride-to-be Amanda, always keeping us entertained with her excellent comic timing while never upstaging or pulling focus. Also a highlight of the show is Nathan Kay, whose exceptional dance ability is showcased right from the opening number, and who also does a great job portraying Amanda’s GBF. The headstrong and confident Stephanie Wong serves as an excellent counterpart to the comic antics of Yusuf and Kay.

As American tourist Tabby, Emma Slipp is hilarious, even when she’s not the centre of attention. For example, watching her peek over her book to spy on Jackie and her ex-girlfriend Jill, is delightfully entertaining. Slipp also gets to have her own shining moment when she leads the cast in the rousing group number, “Let A Girl Eat”.

There are some nice directorial choices on display. Positioning the three-piece band onstage and having them dressed as the kitchen staff is quite clever. However, there’s always the odd distraction of noticing that there is no actual food on the actor’s plates, or coffee in the coffee pot. The actors mime eating and drinking – which takes away from the illusion of the show. Maybe there is no solution to this – it would be impractical to have fresh food prepared for each performance. But the empty plates onstage are a constantly glaring distraction.

While it’s clear the show is nicely polished (it’s gone through a development stage of a workshop at Studio 58), there are a few rough elements. The opening number, while featuring great choreography by Jessica Hickman, leaves you confused since it’s not clear who the ensemble members are portraying. Are they Elbow Room staff or customers? It’s confusing because this isn’t the type of musical where it’s commonplace to have performers appear as anonymous ensemble characters in group dance numbers. The relatively small cast are all set characters, which leaves you wondering who the heck they are supposed to be in the opening number.

Also confusing is why it takes so damn long for the characters to have their meals at the restaurant. When American tourists Tim and Tabby first appear at the Elbow Room during the opening number, you assume that you’re witnessing them having their meal. When the number finishes and the couple is still left onstage, you start to wonder what’s taking them so long. 30 minutes later, you realize they’re not going anywhere soon - for no apparent reason.

Lingering for too long seems to be a re-occurring theme in this show, as many of the songs seem to drag on. Leaving the audience wanting more doesn't seem to be the name of the game here. While many of the musical numbers at first seem cute and charming, they eventually loose their appeal as they relentlessly continue with unnecessary refrains.

But the biggest weakness is the show’s book. Despite the endearing relationship between Patrice and Bryan and the show’s other cute storylines, there’s not enough of a compelling plot to hold the show together. In the end, it feels like we’re just supporting a local musical for the sake of it – not because we’re captivated by the story.

However, kudos to the show’s creators for pulling off a full-scale musical highlighting an iconic Vancouver LGBTQ business. Audiences get a relatively fun theatre experience with a lesson in local history as well. Theatre that celebrates the experiences and accomplishments of LGBTQ individuals is essential and should continue to garner our support.