Review: Spoon River (Soulpepper)

Spoon River returns to Toronto stages with offerings of folk, bluegrass, and cemetery tales

Soulpepper’s Spoon River is in it’s fifth incarnation, and you might want to catch it before it heads off to New York at the end of the month. It’s on until April 21, 2017 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane).

Soulpepper’s Spoon River is an adaptation of the collection of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, which tell the many tales of the dead folk living in the cemetery of the town of the same name. Some of the poems are made into monologues, while others are put to song.

I’ve been curious to see Spoon River for a while now. Walking into the theatre I could tell that it would certainly appeal to my tastes as someone that loves folk and bluegrass music. The hallway is decorated like a dingy funeral home. The set and costumes have a dark, Southern Gothic vibe that I instantly fell in love with.

The dead here are a lot more lively than most living people: they sing, strum on banjos, stomp, and holler. By and large, I really enjoyed the music for this show. Spoon River has a real folksy Americana sound that calls to mind the smell of tobacco and the taste of bourbon. The actors sing with a bit of a rasp and a country twang. The music is much grittier than what you’re used to hearing in the theatre and it feels all the more earnest for it.

All the performances impressed me too. I saw Diego Matamoros in Cage two weeks ago and while I had mixed feelings about the show, I loved him in it. It was incredible to see him here in a series of grounded roles working with other actors. I wish that I could have heard more from Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, whose voice is stunning. Mike Ross composed the music and was a very likeable performer in the show as well.

My guest is one of the biggest musical theatre geeks that I know, and while I enjoyed most of the songs, he felt they were hit and miss. The one unfortunate thing for me is that the only song I didn’t like was the opener “The Hill”. I know that they’re bound to Masters’ verse, but I found that the composition along with the repetition of certain lines felt a lot cheaper than the rest of the music. It’s a shame, because I appreciated the rest of Spoon River for feeling quite genuine. 

I suppose it’s intended that like the dead of Spoon River, I lost track of time while watching it, not knowing how long had passed until the last song or two. From scene to scene, I was happy to hear the stories of the dead townsfolk in the cemetery and that certainly speaks to how watchable the show is. However, I do feel that Spoon River loses out a bit by not having much of an arc. 

The show went by very quickly, but without much of a through line in the ways of plot or theme, it just wasn’t punchy enough at the end to have a lasting impression on me. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, I liked watching it and would recommend it. But it’s a shame that to me this was a great show that falls short of being truly exceptional. It’s fortunate though that Soulpepper will continue to workshop Spoon River each year, because I think a future incarnation of it could easily reach that level.

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Image of Brendan Wall, Mike Ross, Daniel Williston, Oliver Dennis, Jackie Richardson and Raquel Duffy by Cylla von Tiedemann.