Off-Broadway Review: “Spoon River”

David Roberts & Joseph Verlezza

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

Upon entering Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre to view a new musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 “Spoon River Anthology,” we became a bit leery about the execution of this undertaking (no pun intended) as we walked down a dark hallway past Bertie Hume lying at rest in a casket. Continuing in the dark, we turned to walk through a cemetery of old tombstones, turned again and finally entered the seating area of the theater. It was rather peculiar and unnecessary since it is not immersive theater. It seemed to cast an inept and amateurish tone, rather than prepare us for what was to come. Never let a gloomy cemetery fool you!

A few moments after Mr. Pollard (played with sensitive substance by Diego Matamoras) begins to spout his beliefs and his perspective on death, informing us he “seems to be the only one here old enough to pretend to be wise, and young enough to make it up to the top of this hill, we know we are in for a great evening of storytelling. Then “The Hill” comes alive, first with men, followed by women, and then joined together in song, rising from the dead to introduce themselves and greet the passersby (audience). As though they were “lined up” at the Pearly Gates ready to make their case for entrance, they share their engaging life-stories hoping, perhaps, to find forgiveness, redemption, understanding, or just to celebrate who they were while traversing the human plane.

Some of the stories are delivered as prose-poems with one character, or a couple, or a group of characters sharing their lives and their deaths. Other stories are sung through and a few combine word and song. Passersby hear of the troubled marriage of Mr. McGee (Brendan Wall) and Mrs. McGee (Raquel Duffy) and the lonely and abused Nancy Knapp (Michelle Monteith) who “Set fire to the beds and the old witch-house went up in a roar of flame.” Stories of “drunks” – Didymus (Daniel Williston), Deacon (Diego Matamoros), and Oscar (Stuart Hughes – and “women of the night” – Minnie Lee (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), Lucille Lusk (Sarah Wilson), Mary Howe (Miranda Mulholland), and Laura Santini (Raquel Duffy) – challenge conventional views and mores and other societal norms and strictures.

The songs that are perhaps most memorable are the Widow McFarlane’s (Jackie Richardson) admonition for the residents of Spoon River that they have “woven a snow-white strip of cloth” wasting it all “at the loom of live.” “Widow McFarlane [is the] weaver of carpets for all of the village.” Ms. Richardson’s brooding contralto tones shake the recesses of the soul and her character’s “dire warnings” connect deeply with the vicissitudes of the human experience. The song of Two Mothers” is equally soulful and transcendent. Emily Spark (Michelle Monteith) and Elsa Wertman (Raquel Duffy), one the birth-mother of Hamilton Green (Jeff Lillico), the other the adoptive mother sing (with Jeff) the plaintive song “Where Is My Son” that examines privilege and injustice with harmonically-rich tones of unbridled grief.

The other songs that stand out come at “Spoon River’s” conclusion. Bertie Hume (Hailey Gillis) comes up from the grave at the end and delivers a plaintive tribute to life and living and all things left behind at death. Ms. Gillis’s voice is rapturous as she reminisces over the “kisses of vanished lips, the eyes of rapture, the whispers of sacred midnights, and the blue of October water.” Bertie Hume’s lament segues into Edmund Pollard’s (Diego Matamoras) and “the chorus of the dead’s” appeal to “all who pass by” the graveyard to reexamine and celebrate the “light of life, the sunlight of delight.” This mixture of textured voices is beautifully chilling and its repetition a somber yet celebrative reminder of the preciousness of life’s adventure: “Leave no balconie where you can climb, nor golden heads with pillows to share, nor no cups while the wine is sweet.”

This adaptation by Soulpepper Theatre Company’s Mike Ross and Albert Schultz is top-notch, honoring the original poems of Edgar Lee Masters yet giving them a freshness and vitality that reverberates with authenticity and reflects the mid-World War I fears of mortality and survival. Albert Schultz’s staging is strong and exceptional and Mike Ross’s music is emotionally rich, passionate, and often mesmerizing. The ensemble cast seems to welcome the music into the depth of their sinews and delivers the songs with riveting and polished performances. Ken MacKenzie’s sparse and adaptable set and his mood-specific pools of light, Erika Conner’s costumes and Andres Castillo-Smith’s sound are the perfect accompaniments to Mr. Schultz’s effective staging. See Soulpepper’s “Spoon River” before it leaves New York City.



For the members of the cast and the creative team of “Spoon River,” please visit Production photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Performances of the Soulpepper Theatre Comapany’s “Spoon River” run through Saturday July 29 at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre (480 West 42nd Street) as part of the Soulpepper on 42nd Festival. For the schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, please visit Running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes with no intermission.