By Mike Ross and Albert Schultz, Directed by Albert Schultz
Produced by Soulpepper
Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 7.29.17
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Ran Xia on 7.18.17
Brendan Wall, Mike Ross, Daniel Williston, Oliver Dennis, Jackie Richardson, and Raquel Duffy in Spoon River.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
BOTTOM LINE: Souls come alive in Mike Ross and Albert Schultz's musical adaptation of Spoon River Anthology, where music and memories resurrect the forgotten.
Step across a misty threshold, and say a prayer for Bertie Hume. "Sorry for your loss," whispers the man with a nonchalant expression standing next to an open casket, in which lies the recently departed. The townsfolk of Spoon River congregate and mourn the loss of their still-too-young-to-die songbird. Behind a screen, there’s the shadow of a giant tree stretching out its branches like skeletons. Memories course through its veins like warm sap in early spring.
Adapted from Spoon River Anthology, Spoon River the musical preserves the essence of Edgar Lee Masters’ poetic rhythms and elevates the whimsy of its source material. After the somber opening, with the unreliable narrator telling us that all the dead are "sleeping on the hill," we discover the ferociously lively "other side." Time stands still as the dead come forth to welcome the latest member of their community with their own stories.
On the other side, there’s music playing; restless ghosts recount their life stories and reveal their secrets. They quarrel (with good humor), make ghost jokes, and break down the personas they had assumed in life. We follow the tales the way one strolls along in a graveyard: rather than spooked by the potentially gloomy place, one feels the warmth of the memories of the past as they rush back in the form of anecdotes, or old tunes on a fiddle, still remembered by the children of the dead.
Masters’ original work weaves a tapestry with Spoon River’s kaleidoscopic characters, a structure emulated by Ross and Schultz’s adaptation as well. The musical introduces a range of characters, from unhappily married couples, to the old fiddler Jones, to the young thief who points out the dark side of this idyllic town. Spoon River never introduces a main protagonist or antagonist, but rather, presents the ensemble as a whole (much like the Jellicles of Cats). While each segment is engaging and the individual stories ever fail to fascinate, the abundance of characters also becomes overwhelming; I found myself lost in the show’s almost never-ending stream of people, and began to have a hard time differentiating them, as the ensemble of actors also take on multiple roles.
The show is a truthful translation of Masters’ poems into musical form, with some gorgeous arrangements (performed by the versatile actors themselves); however, it doesn’t introduce a traceable plotline, and as a result, while satisfying as a visual and auditory experience, it doesn’t make a lasting impression. Only at the very end is there an attempt to formulate a resolution for the almost forgotten Bertie Hume, as the young woman steps out of her casket and joins the company of singing ghosts, calling out to the audience: if your soul is alive, let it feed.
There’s certainly an earnest and sweet message to be gathered from Spoon River. The musical arrangements are masterfully crafted, giving the piece an otherworldly yet familiar soundscape. It’s a feast for the ears for those who enjoy folk rock or bluegrass music. The genius set and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie also adds dimension to the piece. I was hoping for focus, or a point of view...something that’s more than just staging all the characters from the poems, since the material could fill several seasons of a TV show. Of course, the town, Spoon River, might be the actual protagonist, and it’s the creators’ intention to leave it to the audience to take away whatever they resonate with the most.
(Spoon River plays at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through July 29, 2017. The running time is one hour and 35 minutes without an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7, Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $20 - $80 and are available at soulpepper.ca or by calling 888-898-1188.)
Spoon River is by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz, based on Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. Directed by Albert Shultz. Music Director, Composer and Arranger is Mike Ross. Set and Lighting Design is by Ken MacKenzie. Costume Design is by Erika Connor. Sound Design is by Jason Browning. Production Stage Manager is Robert Harding.
The cast is Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Hailey Gillis, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Richard Lam, Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster, Jeff Lillico, Diego Matamoros, Michelle Monteith, Miranda Mulholland, Gregory Prest, Jackie Richardson, Mike Ross, Paolo Santalucia, Brendan Wall, Daniel Williston, and Sarah Wilson.