Every longtime Vancouver resident has a story about the Sylvia Hotel. My Aunt Doris, after her divorce (“scandalous,” according to my mother’s shocked bridge club), moved into the Sylvia Hotel in the early '40s. The building had only recently been converted into a hotel from what had been the Sylvia Court Apartments, built in 1912. All dolled up, my older sister and I (maybe age six) would visit Aunt Doris there; all I remember is opulence and glamour: high ceilings, dark-red heavy velvet curtains and thick, plush carpets.
The night I attended the Waterfront Theatre to see Two Views from the Sylvia, the place was packed and everyone had a story about the hotel.
It was the dream of Abraham Goldstein, who had a precocious young daughter named Sylvia, to build a hotel on beautiful English Bay. There was considerable anti-Semitic sentiment in Vancouver at the time so his initial plan to build a hotel got mired in permits with regard to “building” versus “operating” a hotel so Goldstein settled for an eight-storey apartment building which, ironically, was later converted into a full-service hotel.
Two short musical plays make up Two Views from the Sylvia. The first, Sylvia’s Hotel, written by Deborah Vogt with music by Britt MacLeod and Kerry O’Donovan, and lyrics by Britt MacLeod, chronicles the early history of the Sylvia. Adam Abrams is Abraham Goldstein and small but dynamic Advah Soudack is curious, determined Sylvia who, despite a heart murmur, was taught to swim by Joe Fortes (Tom Pickett).
This first play is full of interesting historical detail: there were 1,769 cars in Vancouver and it cost $35/month to rent an apartment in the Sylvia Court Apartments. A stray cat moved in, later named “Mr. Got-to-Go”, who became the subject of at least one children’s book. Getting a huge laugh from the full house was this sentiment expressed by Glen (Michael Seeley), a member of the Businessman’s Club: “Do we need to attract more people to this city?”
Sylvia’s Hotel features eight original songs, and choreography by Shelley Stewart Hunt. Best of these scenes is a blue-lit swimming scene with Soudack held aloft.
Co-authored by Cathy Moss and Kelsey Blair, the second part of the evening is The Hotel Sylvia, a present-day depiction of the Sylvia with Rana Laviolette as desk clerk Franny, on her first day at work, aided by the ghostly John (Tom Pickett). Travellers check in and out and as they do, we learn a little of why they have chosen the Sylvia: a romantic getaway gone wrong; visits by adult children of parents who stayed on a regular basis at the Sylvia. A lot of celebrities stayed there, including Leonard Cohen whose name inspires raptures in Franny. Highlight of this second act are Tom Pickett’s rendition of “Prosperity is Just Around the Corner” and Michael Seeley singing the fabulous Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out)”.
Both shows have wonderful archival photo projections running throughout and a 15-minute slide show precedes the show.
The Virginia creeper has softened the original brick exterior but the building and the stylized ‘S’ sign remain Vancouver landmarks.
The evening has a decidedly home-grown quality; it is not a slick Broadway show but an evening that evokes memories of gentler times in Vancouver when “Dine in the Sky” meant having dinner eight-storeys up.
Commissioned by Kol Halev, a nonprofit performance society dedicated to portraying stories rooted in Jewish experience, Two Views from the Sylvia makes a point early in Sylvia’s Hotel when Abraham Goldstein tells Sylvia, “Being Jewish is something to be proud of.” Kol Halev and everyone involved can be justifiably proud of Two Views from the Sylvia.
Two Views from the Sylvia
At Waterfront Theatre until November 12, 2017