Spoon River Review: The Dead, Singin’ and Regrettin’

In “Spoon River,” we meet a town full of drunks, hypocrites, home-grown philosophers, resentful husbands, frustrated wives, an arsonist, a killer, and dozens more – all of them dead…and all of them singing and fiddling and stomping with glee.

As part of their month-long residence at Signature Center, Canada’s Soulpepper theater company has created a lively, joyful musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, the celebrated 1915 book of poems by more than 200 residents of the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois – or more precisely, residents of the graveyard in the town; the poems are expanded tombstone epitaphs

Theatergoers are led through that graveyard before we are shown to our seats, past black-suited funeral directors, and an open casket with a dead woman named Bertie.

Bertie is portrayed by Hailey Gillis, and we won’t see her again for some 90 minutes, when she crawls out of a wooden casket on stage to sing a beauteous hymn to life and beauty and the kisses of vanished lips – the last of the characters, portrayed by 19 cast members, to tell her story.

Composer Mike Ross and director Albert Schultz have done a masterful job of selecting the poems, some of which are spoken, some set to an original score. Much of what Ross has composed is what used to be called hillbilly music, but that doesn’t do justice to the range of genres and the depth of talent that put them over, from Miranda Mulholland’s exquisite violin playing and operatic soprano to Alana Bridgewater’s bring-down-the-house gospel. (see the video below.)

At least one of the poems is both spoken and sung:

Didymus Hupp (Daniel Williston), the first of a quartet of drunks, says

“Like If God is all and in all, as I opine

Then God is also in quinine.

Also in whisky, and also in wine….”

Then one by one, the other drunks join him to sing the stanza, accompanied by bass and mandolin.

There are other clever groupings: A toothless Don Juan, followed by several of the women he deflowered in his prime; a series of married couples, side by side in their coffins (as if we are viewing them from above), vituperative and resentful even in death, or still loving and grateful.

There is humor lurking in the grim tales and sad regrets voiced by individual characters: The town’s telephone operator Edith Bell (Sarah Wilson), after recounting some scandals, observes that “the commandment not to judge was made impossible by the telephone.” Margaret Fuller Slack (Alana Bridgewater), wanted to be a novelist, and married a rich druggist because he promised her a life of leisure, and instead gave her six children. The lesson she has learned in the grave:

Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

If the pile-on of graveyard observers starts to feel too rich, and the songs too repetitive, what will surely remain a fond memory after theatergoers depart (the theater!) are the rompin’, stompin’ hootenannies, when the entire cast of 19 gather,  reassuring us that the dead can have fun.

Soulpepper in Bryant Park

Spoon River

Soulpepper on stage at Signature

Adapted from Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz; Composed by Mike Ross; Directed by Albert Schultz

Cast: 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

Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $20 to $55

Spoon River is set to run through July 27, 2017

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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