By Edgar Lee Masters
Adapted by Mike Ross & Albert Schultz
A Soulpepper Production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
Opened April 3, 2017
Broadway has already embraced Come From Away; now is the time for Off-Broadway to celebrate this moving musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’s free-verse poems in honour of “faithful, tender-hearted souls” remembered from his small town youth in the Midwest. This is a fresh reincarnation of what was a big hit for Soulpepper, artistically and financially, in late 2014, and with Jackie Richardson and Alana Bridgewater now in the large cast, Spoon River gains in musical power as never before. The production marks an artistic peak for Mike Ross as composer, but it is also a peak for Albert Schultz as director and for the Soulpepper acting company. Masters originally published what were epitaphs for more than 200 characters in serial form, using anonymity as his mask, but when the material caught on widely with the reading public, he quickly took credit. His original text is enormously accessible, and it ultimately provides an imperishable sense of an entire town in the 19th century American Heartland—Illinois, in this instance.
Schultz and Ross use the frame of a funeral for a young woman, and treat each member of the audience as a Passer-by who files through a funeral parlour containing sepia portraits of the dead, a guest book, and an open casket in which the deceased rests. Grim attendants in black guide the audience through a ghostly wood of birches at night, and past the cemetery, where a large harvest moon hangs in the inky sky, and where a preacher (Diego Matamoros) delivers an eulogy, while invoking the image of death as a great leveller, for all the dead (as a chorus chants) are “sleeping, sleeping on the hill.” Matamoros sets a visual and tonal standard that others in the cast seek to match in their various ways, and the cast (many equipped with fiddles, banjos, ukuleles, auto-harps, and guitar, and one portly male with a set of drumsticks) rise to the occasion, lifting their voices in song or striking up coffin-thumping, jump-up gospel, bluegrass, to complement the prose-poetry musings of many colours and moods. Even when a very few of the voices are rather off-key or not precisely calibrated to a song, it doesn’t matter much because the singers have the correct grain and texture. They all sing in character, so it is the character rather than the loveliness of sound that matters more.
The character vignettes run the gamut from sombre to bawdy, sinister to romantic, witty to woeful, bitter to sweet, melancholy to ecstatic. While merely thumbnail sketches, the characters come to life as scholars, poets, craftsmen, musicians, children, husbands, wives, atheists, ministers, lawyers, bankers, soldiers, criminals, young lovers, and suicides. There are too many wonderful performances to mention here; a catalogue might require naming almost the entire cast, and it is very probable that members of an audience will all have their own special favourites. However, suffice it to say that such expert performers as Diego Matamoros, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Oliver Dennis, and Michelle Monteith create indelible memories (mournful or celebratory) by their thumbnail sketches.
With the help of Ken Mackenzie’s set and lighting design, Erika Connor’s costumes, and Jason Browning’s sound design, one memorable theatrical image follows another, as performers slide in and out of roles, multiplying versatility and entertainment, without ever losing a grip on life as a worthwhile test and death as a verdict on what was lived or avoided. Almost unfair, if not impossible, to select from a rich gallery, but mention must be made of an old couple loving so deeply that their deaths are a perfectly natural fate. Or of a drunken jig performed by two reprobates, one of whom is a toothless, shrunken Don Juan. Or of a husband’s lament (sounding remarkably like Leonard Cohen in tone) when his wife refuses to divorce him. Or a mother’s warm memory of an encounter with Lincoln during the Civil War. Or a female fiddler caught in a shower of red roses as she plays a haunting tune to the sound of an approaching train. Or a cooper’s lessons from life delivered as an allegory of the tub. Or of a fiddler who notes how the earth keeps vibrating.
Mike Ross has described his music for the show as being O, Brother, Where Art Thou? meets A Prairie Home Companion meets The Walking Dead. But his music, while sometimes jaunty, rollicking, and vigorous is never truly coarse. It is sometimes beautifully tender and silvery, sometimes bluesy, always engaging. The truly outstanding numbers, apart from the powerful choruses, are arias: Alana Bridgewater does a gospel number (about the blindness of souls to other souls) that grows and grows in pitch and power; Jackie Richardson as Widow McFarlane, weaver of carpets for the village, sings about “loom of life,” her voice moving from the buttery rich to a deep-down velvet; and Hailey Gillis, as the woman who emerges from her coffin near the end, launches into a hypnotic solo, with melancholy notes about feeling the beauty of a world she has recently left but not forgotten. These numbers and the rich balance of grief and joy, pain and delight in the shadow of death reminded me of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but Spoon River takes the sting out of death, emphasizing the benevolent message in the show’s rousing finale: “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!” This production is utterly alive, and it feeds our souls with massive energy, colour, and generosity.