Review: Spoon River

SPOON RIVER by Edgar Lee Masters, adapted by Albert Schultz and Mike Ross (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre (50 Tank.


SPOON RIVER by Edgar Lee Masters, adapted by Albert Schultz and Mike Ross (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre (50 Tank House). Runs to November 15, see soulpepper.ca for times. $23-$89, some rush. 416-866-8666. See listing. Rating: NNNN

Like young Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, if you travel to Spoon River, youre sure to see dead people.

Based on a collection of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, the rich Soulpepper production is entertaining and moving in equal measure. It becomes a celebration of life and death and how the two interact with each other as the residents of a graveyard deliver their histories and wisdom to passersby (the audience).

After were led into the graveyard, the only living person we see is a speaker (Diego Matamoros) at the funeral of young Bertie Hume (Hailey Gillis). His presence and speech suggest that of the Stage Manager in Our Town, whose final act also includes a funeral.

What follows are some 50 short speeches and songs by the deceased, moments filled alternately with humour, irony, bitterness, hope, jealousy and ultimately a sense of the wonder of creation that cant be realized while we are able to breathe.

Adapted by composer/arranger/actor Mike Ross and director Albert Schultz, the show blends several generations of actors: senior Soulpepper members (among them Nancy Palk, Stuart Hughes and Oliver Dennis), some former Academy members (Gregory Prest and Raquel Duffy) and the current talented Academy. I cant think of a better means to show off the range of some of Torontos best performers.

While not every number succeeds, youll lose count of the many magical moments. In one series of episodes, Hughes plays a now aged seducer whose women offer tales of their encounters with him in another series, successive spouses, caught against the walls of pine boxes, describe their happiness or woe.

The mayor (Brendan Wall) prides himself on cleaning up the towns morals but complains about a couple who fool around on his grave. Miranda Mulhollands violin solo about a woman who reveals the secrets of the natural world but not her own mystery is also memorable.

Gillis is another standout, her haunting, ethereal performance giving just the right touch of simple, emotional eloquence near the end.

Rosss music — a blend of reels, slow waltzes, honky-tonk numbers and ebullient toe-tapping dance songs, played and sung by the large company — is a treat, too.

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

Be sure to check the photos on the walls and the various characters in the pre-show, during which you travel an unusual path to your seat. They set up a mood for the production, sombre and calming dont miss the last vision on your right just before you turn to enter the graveyard.

Win a pair of tickets to see Spoon River here!

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