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A CurtainUp Review
Spoon River

All is yours, young passer-by;
Enter the banquet room with the thought;
Don't sidle in as if you were doubtful
Whether you're welcome - the feast is

— Edmund Pollard in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.
Hailey Gillis and the cast of Spoon River
Spoon River, adapted from the famous "anthology" by American poet Edgar Lee Masters, begins in deepest solemnity, but composer Mike Ross and dramatist-director Albert Schultz soon reset their course toward realms of joy. This exhilarating, 95-minute musical, part of a month-long repertory season at Manhattan's Signature Theater complex called Soulpepper on 42nd Street, features 19 top-flight actor-musicians, including the versatile Ross who is also the show's Music Director. It's an impressive New York musical-theater debut for the Toronto troupe Soulpepper, which is also presenting an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage and Ins Choi's Kim's Convenience

Arriving for Spoon River, audience members follow a dimly-lighted corridor past a coffin in which lies a youthful woman in her Sunday-best. Beyond the open coffin is a row of weather-beaten gravestones with barely discernible names. Somber men in black topcoats offer sotto voce condolences — they're "so sorry for your loss" and "awfully glad you could get here for the service today."

This prologue (the only part of the production that's "immersive") may call to mind a small-town relative's funeral or foul-weather burial scenes in old Hollywood movies. There's no hint that the evening will end in a life-affirming hoe-down, celebrating what's most rich and rewarding on the journey from cradle to grave. But that's where Spoon River is headed.

The authors frame their musical with the late-afternoon burial of Bertie Hume (Hailey Gillis), the woman who was lying in repose outside the auditorium. Scenic and lighting designer Ken MacKenzie has created a somber hilltop cemetery, with birch trees and a harvest moon. When the funeral party disperses (after the briefest graveside service in memory), the playing area is transformed into something akin to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and the show takes off. The scenes and songs that follow amount to a wild tour of human experience and emotion.

Soulpepper unveiled Spoon River at its Toronto home in 2014, a century after the free-verse epitaphs that constitute Spoon River Anthology began appearing in Reedy's Mirror, a long defunct St. Louis (MO) magazine. Though brief, each of Masters' 245 dramatic monologues is vivid and powerful. In these explosive little speeches, the usually silent citizens of a hillside cemetery unearth the secrets of a fictional hamlet that Masters modeled on the two Illinois communities in which he spent his childhood.

Masters, who for a time was Clarence Darrow's law partner in Chicago, shocked and titillated early 20th century readers with the contrast between his characters' righteous outward show and their private expressions of desire, frustration, and bitterness. Soulpepper's musical adaptation features fewer than a third of the characters who populate Masters' Anthology. They're a duke's mixture of humankind, including temperance advocates, drunks, true lovers, Lotharios, adulterers, care-givers, opportunists, victims, and hypocrites.

The prevailing mood of Masters' verse is melancholic. Many of his Spoon River dead lament their mates' infidelities, their neighbors' treachery, and the perils of untreatable illness (such as tetanus, known in that day as "lockjaw"). They liken human existence to cancer, rail against this "monstrous ogre Life," and urge us to "take note ... of the cross-currents … which bring honor to the dead, who lived in shame." Yet Ross and Schultz have found ample uplift in Masters' work.

Much of the score of Spoon River has a classic country sound. Some numbers trend in the direction of jazz, blues, and show-biz razzmatazz. Occasionally one hears an allusion to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. All of it is appealing and much of it beautiful.

Cast members play a variety of instruments — including piano, fiddle, ukulele, guitar, and drums. The liveliest numbers are punctuated by energetic foot-stomping and hand-clapping. (The show's choreography is rudimentary and uncredited.)

The stirring finale is inspired by Masters' poem "Edmund Pollard." "You will die, no doubt," says Pollard; but, with luck and the right attitude, you may "die while living / In depths of azure, rapt and mated, / Kissing the queen-bee, Life!"

The authors have transformed that short poem into a grand choral anthem that shakes the rafters and fills the heart. "Is your soul alive? Then let it feed / Leave no balconies where you can climb / Nor milk-white bosoms where you can rest / Nor golden heads with pillows to share / Nor no cups while the wine is sweet." It's a carpe-diem climax to which all scenes and musical numbers have been leading.

Ross, Schultz, and the Spoon River company have transformed Masters' morose masterpiece into a gift of joy for New York. Let's hope the Soulpepper crew will plant their maple leaf flag in the Big Apple on a frequent basis.

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Spoon River Adapted from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz, composed by Mike Ross
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, Sarah Wilson
Albert Schultz, Director
Ken Mackenzie, Set And Lighting Designer
Erika Connor, Costume Designer
Jason Browning, Sound Designer
Colton Stang, Sound Design Associate
Andres Castillo-smith, Sound Coordinator
Mike Ross, Music Director, Composer and Arrangement
Andrea Nann, Movement Coach
Diane Pitblado, Dialect Coach
Kelly Mcevenue, Alexander Coach
Robert Harding, Production Stage Manager
Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission Signature Pershing Square Center on 42nd Street Reviewed by Charles Wright on July 8th

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