Spoon River Haunts the Mack

In an anthology of character sketches, the poetry by Edgar Lee Masters, & music composed by Mike Ross, the simple folk of a time long forgotten were immortalized by stirring southern stories that delved into old time trials & tribulations with a whole gamut of Victorian sins. For Kimberley Johnston & I this was 1st time back at The Mack, known for its well put together theatre in a small intimate setting since Dear Johnnie Deere 2 years ago as a reviewer team.

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The press release about Spoon River gives a very detailed description about the concept & journey of this peice: In 2015, Spoon River (produced by Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto) won Canada’s prestigious Dora Award for Outstanding New Musical. Now in 2016 Spoon River makes its first appearance outside Toronto, at Confederation Centre’s Mack theatre in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. The musical is based on the classic Spoon River Anthology, written 100 years ago by Edgar Lee Masters. In this rendition, poems of the dead are brought to life and set to music by PEI’s own Mike Ross. Albert Schultz directs the 11-member cast, as they raise their voices in song, telling of loves, losses, and hard-earned truths. The Charlottetown Festival produced this mystical, dream-like musical in association with Soulpepper Theatre.

First off, we would say music was on point, incredibly talented Spoon River composer Mike Ross talked a little bit in an interview recently about the trend of Music Theatre: a place where concert & theatre meet. Ross, who has spent some time working in Toronto has been very successful, we’re glad to have him back on PEI teaming up with director Albert Schultz of CBC’s Street Legal & Side Effects (a quote someone who might’ve seen that show might remember was, “people die, it’s a side effect of living”) for Spoon River. Poetry in song is beautiful, so rhythmic.

Brendan Wall (Spoon River world premiere; War Horse for Mirvish and London’s West End; Mirvish’s Once) who is making his Charlottetown Festival debut this year caught my attention early in the show with a song that had a bit of a Tom Waits ring to it. His animated swinging of the mandolin with a tic-toc rhythm standing next to a beautiful, vailed, & very ghostly Susan Henley (‘Rachel Lynde’ in Anne of Green Gables-The MusicalTM; Evangeline; Hairspray! 1st U.S. National tour) with a barrage of instruments including 2 pianists joining in on chorus, jumping back & forth from intimate to blown up musical experience with haunting melodies & saloon-type music would’ve been the musical highlight for me on the 4th or 5th song (I should mention we were a little late getting in so, of course we failed to get a program & missed the introduction). Another honorable mention has to go to Alicia Toner (Evangeline; lead in the Centre’s Cinderella; Mirvish’s Once) for her solo piece on violin with the in-coming train featuring a deer in the headlights look which left me absolutely spell bound.

Actors did amazingly well & were very animated. Characters had distinct facial characteristics which the perfect lighting accentuated. A trip back in time with this play, at least I felt like I was in another time & that, to me, is the power of theatre. Their recitals gave an impression of what the epic poems of Homer’s era might’ve been like. Dialects were great, the Scottish & Southern accents especially. The importance of the way the voice executes a monologue is instrumental. According to Stuart Pearce, Voice coach from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, “Your voice is your identity in sound. It is far more than just a means with which to communicate your thoughts & feelings; it is the expression of your integrity & individuality in the world!

Passion is what the actors put into the poems. In the opening monologue, Jonathan Ellul (Forever Plaid; King Lear and Oklahoma! at Stratford Festival) had to look & delivery of a genuine southern playboy. His accent & demeanor actually reminded me a lot of Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder (a true comedic tour de force in that picture, by the way, for Downey who also shined in the DVD commentary as well).

Fantastic set design convincingly turned the stage atmosphere into a graveyard! Great use of realistic trees & a surprisingly realistic full moon on stage, you could see the craters & everything. All characters were well used & the props were just as well used. In the 1st song, Soulpepper Theatre Company regular, Daniel Williston (Soulpepper’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Death of a Salesman; Mirvish’s Kinky Boots) made poignant use of a casket for drums which might actually have been very cathartic. I loved the scene when those caskets were standing up. There were 2 boards standing upward with couples lying next to each switching pairs each time the lights dimmed. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize, but I got the impression we were watching from a horizontal instead of vertical angle looking down at an open graves. This part quite possibly used old illusionist lighting tactics from the days before Tesla & Edison came on the scene which would’ve been quicker than eyes of those townsfolk seeing as how our more recent generations are so used to the flickering screens of TV, computer, & handheld devices.

Another highlight for me, Matt Campbell, (lead in The Full Monty and Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad; Canada ROCKS!) I am happy to report, is back at The Mack! He’s an old pro of the Charlottetown Festival & he’s someone I’ve gotten a chance to see on stage every year since I started doing reviews. Whenever we see him perform, we want to see more of him, especially in these ensemble pieces. Kimberley’s need to see him this time, however, was sated, he was really well used. His boyish charm is an asset that is right up there with his musical ability, he’s versatile yet he sticks to his niche & he always seems to play roles that suit his style. The extremely gifted vocalist Alana Bridgewater (Hairspray; Mirvish’s We Will Rock You; Gemini-nominated vocalist), Mary Francis Moore (co-writer of Bittergirl and Bittergirl-The Musical; lead in TPM’s The Thing Between Us), Sandy Winsby (four seasons as ‘Matthew’ in AnneTM; Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway; Mirvish’s Kinky Boots), Amanda LeBlanc (lead in Dear Johnny Deere; 2016 National Arts Centre Ensemble), & Richard Lam (Spoon River world premiere; The Crucible and Of Human Bondage (Soulpepper) rounded off the cast of 11 with some shining moments of their own, showing off their singing, acting, dancing, & musical talents.

Some big names were in the house for this special night including Director Albert Schultz, cultural patron of the arts Mike Duffy, Spoon River Composer & former Jive King Mike Ross, reps from the corporate sponsors, & of course, Confederation Centre of the Arts Chair & 2015 Order of Canada recipient Mr. Wayne Hambly.

It was surprising to us (again, we missed out on getting programs) that it was only 1 Act, which was a jam-packed 90 minutes, if it wasn’t mentioned in the intro or program, it would be good to take note. Nice little encore as well.

Other than 2 or 3 songs toward the end that weren’t quite my cup of tea, the show surpassed my expectations & Kimberley said she would see this show again & again & again & that this is the most uplifting thing about the dead she’s ever seen (and Kimberley has seen a lot of stuff from all genres). Kimberley would also like to thank the ushers for their professionalism & stealth. Props to everyone! To put it gingerly, we were not disappointed with Spoon River & to paraphrase actress Susan Henley, who we met after the show: “even though it is set in a graveyard, it isn’t dismal or sad. Our culture should take a second look at death. Only through death can we celebrate life.”

Review by PL Holden and Kimberley Johnston. Used by permission. Originally posted on http://www.onrpei.ca.

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