The dead in Spoon River offer truths to the living

SPOON RIVER adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, composed by Ross..


SPOON RIVER adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, composed by Ross. To April 21. $32-$96. See listing. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNN

Back at the Young Centre before its tour to Manhattan as part of Soulpeppers first visit to New York City, the award-winning Spoon River has lost none of its warmth, comedy, irony, heartbreak and awareness of lifes importance: that were all on the same journey.

Based on Spoon River Anthology by American poet Edgar Lee Masters, its speakers are graveyard residents in a small Illinois town, each giving us details about their lives. Wanting to be remembered, they share the good and bad with us. Mike Ross and director Albert Schultz have adapted the material into a musical composed by Ross.

The 19 actors, who all play instruments, bring us to the auditorium from backstage, saying theyre sorry for our loss and addressing us as passersby. And thats the theme of the show, that we are all wanderers here, on a similar journey.

The diverse stories include those of two fiddlers, a gravestone carver, bar drunks, a gay couple, a Russian dancer and at the start and end, a living character.

Just about everyone plays multiple characters. Among the standouts are Stuart Hughes as a rural Don Juan with a knowing twinkle Oliver Dennis as a jovial fiddler Miranda Mulholland, another fiddler with a haunting number in which she reveals the secrets of nature but keeps her own to herself Jackie Richardson as a woman who pities people whose existences are unchangeably woven on the loom of life and a pair of mothers who lose their sons in various ways.

Love truly felt or sometimes broken and lost is part of their lives, but there are comically sarcastic episodes, too. Theres nothing precious about any of the tales.

My favourite episodes reveal the graves of couples, buried side by side and shown standing up against a wooden board, the bottom of their coffins. They fight and bicker, an expression on one partners face just as the lights go down making a significant comment on the relationship. One happier twosome sings in unison.

The music is nicely varied, good and always easy to listen to: hand-clapping barn tunes, ballads, badlands love melodies, gospels (a rouser by Alana Bridgewater), reels, waltzes, honky-tonk numbers and ebullient dance songs.

But its the final song, sung simply and sincerely by Hailey Gillis, thats the shows most touching. Its about the joy of living but the knowledge that youve never lived enough, so explore as long as you can.

The atmospheric design, featuring Ken MacKenzies moonlit space of trees and rounded steps, allows the characters, in Erika Connors period costumes, to flow smoothly in and out of the action.

If you havent seen the show, its a rousing, moving experience.

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