Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann


Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:



A celebration of music & musicians – Shannon Butcher’s EP Butcher Sings Baker

Shannon Butcher celebrated the launch of her new EP Butcher Sings Baker, performing two sets of songs from the Chet Baker songbook at Paintbox Bistro last night. Accompanying Butcher, an amazing three-piece band: Jake Wilkinson on trumpet, Ross MacIntyre on bass and Mark Kieswetter on keys.

Opening the first set with “It Could Happen to You” and “Old Devil Moon,” Butcher took us from chipper to melancholy with “I Fall In Love Too Fast,” and into the heartbreaking and beautiful “Almost Blue” (written for Baker by Elvis Costello, inspired by Baker’s “The Thrill Is Gone”). Butcher’s arrangements – with Kieswetter acting as both collaborator and sounding board – also covered Baker’s emotional spectrum, including the whimsical addition of a horn riff of “Pure Imagination” (rom the movie musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) at the top and bottom of “Imagination.” Wilkinson was channeling Baker on trumpet throughout the evening and MacIntyre brought out his six-string electric bass for a duet with Butcher on “Little Girl Blue,” bringing out deep-bottomed, guitar-like sounds to accompany the song.

Butcher opened the second set with quintessential Baker ballad “Funny Valentine.” During the course of the evening, she connected another music history dot, telling us how Baker played trumpet on Chris Isaak’s “Blue Spanish Sky.” Who knew? More classic Baker, this time with just Kieswetter – playing on a gorgeous Steinway – on “Everything Happens To Me,” one of the seven songs on the EP. Butcher and band closed with “Time After Time” (not to be confused with Cyndi Lauper’s song of the same name), returning to croon “You Don’t Know What Love Is” for the encore (a song that movie buffs will recognize from the soundtrack for The Talented Mr. Ripley).

Butcher’s vocals and presence perfectly evoked the mood and tone of each song, taking the audience on an emotional ride through some well-loved tunes. And her band represents the very best of Toronto’s jazz musicians. It was truly a pleasure to hear them.

I will definitely go back to Paintbox Bistro. I wasn’t able to make it for dinner, but I heard the food is amazing and they do a great brunch – and the atmosphere is fantastic. Also need to get my hands on some Chet Baker recordings.

Shannon Butcher & Ross MacIntyre
Jake Wilkinson
Mark Kieswetter
Shannon Butcher

If you haven’t heard Shannon Butcher, do yourself a favour and wrap your ears around her sound – Butcher Sings Baker is available on iTunes and CD Baby. You can also find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.