Spoon River, Magical, Musical Theatre

Albert Schultz & Charlottetown’s Mike Ross bring acclaimed production to The Mack.

For Mike Ross, Spoon River felt like a show he’d been preparing to compose his whole life. A resident artist with Soulpepper Theatre Company, and now music director, it took a brief encounter with Artistic Director Albert Schultz to connect the Island native with a 100-year-old text that would soon change his life.

After wrapping a meeting for another project, Schultz tossed Ross an old copy of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. The collection of free-verse poems was written in 1915, and each poem is a kind of extended epitaph for townsfolk in the fictional community of Spoon River, Illinois.

spoonriver

“Spoon River is an incredibly theatrical collection of stories. It’s about the full spectrum of life, a theme that always resonates with me,” offers Schultz, an accomplished actor and director, and Member of the Order of Canada. “It’s relatable and human; there’s vice and violence but also wonder and glory, and nature and love. As soon as I read it, I knew that Mike would be the one to set it to music.”

“I had never heard of it,” recalls Ross, co-adaptor, composer, and musical director for the production, opening July 6 at The Mack. “I was immediately inspired by the range of voices and stories from these people sharing their loves, losses, regrets, and triumphs. It is truly a timeless study of small town life in all of its richness and eccentricity, and it is perfect for the stage.”

The Soulpepper production would go on to win Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards for Best Musical and Best Director of a Musical and Dora Awards for Outstanding New Musical and Outstanding Musical Direction. Now the production is taking root at The Mack, and is again directed by Schultz. Featuring a stacked cast of 11 performers who double as on-stage musicians – including Matt Campbell, Alicia Toner, Sandy Winsby, and Alana Bridgewater – this rousing hootenanny is grounded in roots and old time music, calling to mind the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

“The way we present Spoon River places audiences right in the show’s community: you recognize these characters, especially if you’re from a small town,” continues Schultz. “And bringing the play to Charlottetown and to the intimate Mack space encourages this immersive experience. We’re thrilled to share this original Canadian work for the first time outside of Toronto, and with such an exceptional cast of Canadian artists.”

For Ross, this also represents a powerful full circle back to the city and the Festival where he got his start, performing in Fire! and Anne of Green Gables–The Musical™. “Bringing Masters’ vibrant characters to life with this group of gifted performers is unforgettable, as is having that energy connect with audiences — the most important people in the theatre at any moment,” he says. “In this show, everyone plays a part: you, the audience, have been cast in the role of ‘passerby.’ And to have that role played by people from the town in which I was born, is one of the great honours of my life.”

Spoon River is produced by The Charlottetown Festival, in association with Soulpepper Theatre Company. The musical opens July 6, and plays select dates until August 20 at The Mack, a part of Confederation Centre.

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