Wednesday, April 1, 2015


It's not often that I'm gifted with the staggering experience of seeing a raw, powerful piece of music theatre without knowing a thing about it beforehand. I saw Spoon River just freshly after it opened at Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre, and nobody knew anything about it yet. And I knew within five minutes of the show that it'd be one to get people talking. By the end of the show, I was a quivering mass of tears. It devastated me. I went back to see it another three times.

Spoon River is a musical adapted from poetry anthology of the same title by Edgar Lee Masters, which focuses on a rough little American town in which we visit a graveyard and the dead are given a voice from beyond. Here, the poems are set to an original score by the incomparable Mike Ross. Ross, no stranger to adapting poetry to musical composition, has here done what is inarguably his fullest, most stirring work to date. It deserves to be a landmark of Canadian musical theatre.

Ross' score is made of up pretty much entirely of foot-stomping, rafter-shaking, soul-enriching bluegrass, country, and folk. It's played live on stage by a 19 member ensemble of actor-musicians, and there's a rawness to its imperfection. Don't expect Broadway voices and precise instrumentation. It's far more human than that, which is part of what makes Spoon River so affecting. That, and the fact that every single song is so damn powerful.

There's not a weak link in the score, or the cast for that matter. Stuart Hughes touchingly croons a delicate banjo ballad; Colin Palangio screams, wails, and stomps as a deranged arsonist; the sweet-voiced Miranda Mulholland masterfully accompanies herself on the violin in her haunting solo; Hailey Gillis' achingly beautiful farewell to life is overwhelmingly moving; and the show-stopping Peter Fernandes' defiant and mighty Widow McFarlane is a thunderous gut punch. The entire ensemble shines in the exuberant The Hill, the show's powerfully alive opening song, and in Edmund Pollard, the finale that carries the powerful and universal message: "Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!"

Luckily, not just the score of the show has been preserved on this recording... the entire show is present in audio form on the album. Many of the poems are used as speeches in the show, and they are riveting to listen to in the capable hands of some of Canada's most prolific stage actors and strongest up-and-coming artists. The specificity of their use of Edgar Lee Masters' language brings the words to vivid life. You won't want to miss a single second of this recording... do not skip ahead to the songs.

There is just one minor quibble with the album, which comes down to personal taste: The tracks are divided into groupings of the thematically linked poems in the show. This means that there are tracks on this album as long as 12 minutes, and those long single tracks contain multiple poems and songs. I wish the songs had been individually isolated for easier access, but I understand why the recording was not created this way.

But why complain further? The whole show is there, every moving and exciting and devastating moment perfectly captured. The songs are too special to not be recorded, and it's a pleasure to have this acting company's performances forever immortalized, whether in the spoken or sung passages. You owe it to yourself to check out Spoon River. It's not often a show changes me, but this one did. That's saying something. 

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