Alumna rides challenging ‘River’ in production

Adela Talbot // Western News

Louise Pitre, BMus’79, DMus’06, takes the stage with Emm Gryner and Brendan Wall this week, performing in Joni Mitchell: River, a theatrical concert at The Grand Theatre in London.

On paper, it was not her style. But that is exactly why Louise Pitre accepted the gig.

“Joni Mitchell is the last thing I though I would be singing on stage. I know her famous songs, but I never owned any of her albums. I thought, ‘Oh my god. It’s just not my thing.’ So, it was a very cool challenge,” said Pitre, BMus’79, DMus’06, known as Canada’s first lady of musical theatre.

Opening this week at The Grand Theatre, Joni Mitchell: River celebrates the music of one of Canada’s iconic artists. Pitre will take the stage with Emm Gryner and Brendan Wall, performing with a four-piece band and collectively singing 29 songs, including Help Me, Big Yellow Taxi and Both Sides Now. Created and directed by Allen MacInnis, the theatrical concert is a tribute to Mitchell, though not one that aims to mimic her style, Pitre said.

“(MacInnis) heard Joni Mitchell do an interview where she said, ‘In a perfect world, it would be actors singing my songs because to me, they are stories, and what I’m saying is important. It’s about the words.’ He thought I would be perfect. What he wanted to do with the show is take Joni Mitchell songs and not just sing them, but really act them and embody them,” Pitre explained.

Today, Pitre graces stages across the globe, from the lights of Broadway and Paris, to the halls of Carnegie and Royal Albert. But at Western, it took one unexpected audition in her fourth year of a Music Education degree to change her path forever.

After accompanying a friend’s audition for a rhythm, blues and jazz revue at the McManus Studio Theatre, she was told she “had personality” and asked to audition herself. Pitre sat on the edge of the stage, sang Marlene Dietrich’s Falling In Love Again, and never looked back.

A talented singer, comic and dramatic actress, Pitre has won acclaim for her work in theatre, television and concert stages in New York, London, Toronto, Paris and Montreal. She has been honoured with a National Broadway Touring Award, a New York Theatre World Award, a San Francisco Theatre Critics’ Award and four Dora Mavor Moore awards (all for best performance by a leading actress in a musical). In 2002, she earned a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway debut in the smash hit Mamma Mia! She has also portrayed French singer Edith Piaf in three productions of Piaf, as well as roles in numerous theatrical and musical shows.

But Joni Mitchell would prove to be a challenge, Pitre said.

“They gave me a little USB stick with all the songs I would be singing on it. And it’s Joni Mitchell singing them. I was listening to them going, ‘Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Where’s the melody?’ Her style is very meandering, rambling,” she noted.

“I drove around a lot with that little USB stick, just to be familiar with them, but not familiar enough. I wouldn’t be doing exactly what she’s doing. Then I got on the treadmill, every day and learned a song a day on the treadmill. That’s where I learn my stuff, script and lyrics – it’s a good place.”

Once Pitre knows the tune, it’s about memorizing the lyrics and singing them over and over again until they mean something to her as the singer. She looks for a story in each song and can trace a trajectory, a path to one note, one word, one emotion, for every piece. She has to feel every song, she said.

“I have to go to a place – a bubble – and believe it so much, believe every word so much that it actually starts to affect me. It’s about pretending and it’s about believing. It’s about making what you’re saying matter, whatever it is. They’re not my words. But I have to find they are important, that they matter for the moment. And boy, I went to a place and was actually teary eyed (singing Joni Mitchell),” Pitre said.

Having had this opportunity, this challenge, to sing and get to know Joni Mitchell’s work, Pitre finds herself more connected to the singer. She sees her as “the ultimate poet,” someone who wasn’t afraid to be daring, someone who poked fun at herself and others, and exposed her frailty openly in song.

This openness is what Pitre admires most.

“People always think a famous person like that just has the world by the balls, and is not afraid of anything, and everything is easy. Not so. It never is – everybody is afraid that people aren’t going to like them, that they will shoot them down, that they’re not going to be able to do it as well today as they did yesterday. The job is to look like you have no worries in the world. But she fully admitted those insecurities in her songs and I think that’s amazing,” she said.

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Joni Mitchell: River is structured in eight chapters following a theme. Each tracks the journey from thrilling attraction through edgy discontent, from relationship breakdown to recovery and wisdom, and from capitalism to sexual politics. It premiered at Prairie Theatre Exchange in 2001 and has since been produced in Vancouver, Calgary, Antigonish, Nova Scotia and London.

Tickets range from $29.95 to $82.50 and are available at, by phone at 519-672-8800 or at the Grand Theatre box office, 471 Richmond St. The show runs through Nov. 5.