Review: 'Spoon River' at Soulpepper

Joseph Szekeres

  • Onstage Toronto Critic

Soulpepper has joyfully and joyously given us another musical gift.   Get to see SPOON RIVER at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Toronto Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane, before it closes April 21.

Vocally thrilling, this current production (New York bound in July as part of Canada’s 150th celebration) captivates our hearts and emotions and soars through the rafters of the Baillie Theatre with impeccably controlled precision and timing.  Recently, the only time I had seen an audience on its feet before the curtain call was at COME FROM AWAY now in production in New York

SPOON RIVER is based on Edgar Lee Masters’ book of poems Spoon River Anthology published well over a hundred years ago.  According to the Programme Background Notes, Masters wanted to honour the “faithful, tender-hearted souls” he remembered from his small town youth in the American Midwest.  In this anthology, Masters acknowledges that we are all passing by, one after another, a theme that resonates strongly even today.   Even though we are just passing by in this production, we are treated like family.

Our nontraditional entrance into the auditorium takes us past a body lying in a casket with photos on the walls where we assume we are at a funeral visitation. Actors stand at the walls and tell us how sorry they are for our loss.  We then pass by headstones and then realize we are in a moon lit cemetery.  This appears to be momentarily disconcerting as to how we, as audience, figure into this story.  This was my first time in seeing this show and I had no idea what to expect; however, there were many present in the sold out opening night who obviously knew what was going to happen as there was an anticipatory buzz of excitement.

It is in the opening song where we finally realize we will learn about lives of those who are in their final resting place through poetry, drama and music.  I do have a slight quibble with the text, nevertheless, as these numerous glimpses and brief looks into the backstories become a jumble in trying to make connections to the characters.  It is only a minute quibble as the musical score paints an emotional landscape through song and, combined with banjos, guitars, ukuleles, tambourines and one pair of drumsticks, one hell of a good time for two hours.

Soulpepper founder Albert Schultz is Director and adaptor of this production.  Along with his responsibilities as Music Director, Mike Ross thankfully returns to perform in this company along with seven of the Soulpepper original cast members.  Normally, I do highlight standout performers but I hesitate to single out as this current production is a true representation of ensemble actor professionalism. All  nineteen performers have created very humble characters and personalities.  There is a state of grace in each performance.  When you combine them all together, Messrs. Schultz and Ross have created a tsunami of voice that allows us to listen, to hear and to see the joy of life through song and movement.   We are to live each moment of life because it is so fleeting. It is for this reason that Soulpepper’s SPOON RIVER is so moving, so inspirational and so inspiring. 

SPOON RIVER continues to Friday April 21 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane in Toronto’s Distillery District.  Visit for further information or call 1-416-866-8666 for ticket information.

In celebration of Canada’s 150th, celebrate SOULPEPPER ON 42nd Street:  Canada Crosses the Border at the Pershing Square Signature Centre on 42nd Street, New York City for the month of July 2017.  Along with SPOON RIVER in repertory, come celebrate other Soulpepper productions OF HUMAN BONDAGE, KIM’S CONVENIENCE and a number of concert series and ensemble creations.  Once again, visit for further information about the transfer of these productions to New York City. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann