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Spoon River

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 12, 2017

The Ensemble
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The 19 talented actors, singers, and musicians who gather onstage at the Pershing Square Signature Center's Linney Theatre kick up such a rip-roaring, rafter-shaking rumpus, they could wake the dead. Which is rather the point of Spoon River, the third and last of the mainstage productions for the Soulpepper on 42nd festival.

The show, which is more of a celebratory song cycle than a through narrative, was adapted from Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 book, Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems written as epitaphs for the dead who are buried in the cemetery of a fictional small town in Illinois. Soulpepper's artistic director Albert Schultz and composer Mike Ross did the adaptation. Schultz directs the production, and Ross, who also arranged the music, serves as musical director and appears in the cast.

Spoon River takes place on a single evening under a harvest moon hanging above the cemetery, around a newly-arrived simple wood coffin. That coffin is familiar to us because, when we entered the theater, we followed a path that led us through the funeral parlor, where we paid our respects to the deceased, a young woman lying in repose in that same pine box. The undertaker's staff was there to offer condolences ("sorry for your loss") and move us through the graveyard itself, until we found ourselves in the theater watching (respectfully; cell phones off) as the casket was carried in, someone said a few words of eulogy, and the dead gathered around to do what they do when they see they have an audience: tell their stories, gossip, and air their grievances.

That, in a nutshell, is what Spoon River is all about. This is not the richly woven tapestry of Thornton Wilder's more famous Our Town; rather Masters' work and this show create their effect through the accumulation of the stories of those who lived, died, and were buried in the community, a portrait not of any one individual, but of small town life in America's heartland.

The opening number sets the tone with a musical setting of the first poem in the book, which recounts how those who are "sleeping on the hill" passed away: "One passed in a fever; one was burned in a mine; one was killed in a bawl; one died in a jail; one fell from a bridge." There are few heroic deaths to be celebrated here, just the understanding that death, the great equalizer, comes to us all.

There is nothing morbid or gushy or overtly religious about the show, as each of the characters steps forward to say whatever it is they wish to say about their lives and circumstances of their passing away. Much of what they share is no different than what they would have imparted in life. They complain about one another, tell wry jokes, justify their own behavior, share tidbits of gossip, gloat, and regret. And just occasionally there is a word of advice for us, the living, such as this bit of wisdom from the character of "Lucinda," who died at 96: "What is this I hear," she asks, "of sorrow and weariness, anger, discontent, and drooping hopes? Degenerate sons and daughters, Life is too strong for you. It takes life to love Life."

All of the stories are set to Ross's mostly foot-stomping, toe-tapping lively score, filled with the sounds of American folk music, Appalachian bluegrass, New Orleans funeral parades, and gospel. The uniformly strong cast, many of whom are appearing in the Toronto-based Soulpepper's other productions during its New York stay, not only sing and tell their stories but also perform splendidly on fiddles, banjos, mandolins, guitars, bass, and rhythm instruments. All in all Spoon River is a joyful and fitting production to ice the birthday cake for Canada's month-long 150th birthday party at the Signature Center.

Spoon River
Through July 29
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Soulpepper

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