© GUARDIAN PHOTO BY SALLY COLE
Cameron MacDuffee is looking forward to filling these boots in The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom at the Harbourfront Theatre this summer. He is familiar to P.E.I. audiences for his work in the Charlottetown Festival productions of Ring of Fire and Dear Johnny Deere.
As a performer, Stompin’ Tom Connors is remembered for his huge catalogue of music.
The late, great Canadian singer-songwriter is credited with writing 300 songs and releasing 20 albums of original material.
While he was eventually hugely successful in his music career, Connors entered the world under difficult circumstances. Born in Saint John, N.B., he was separated from his mother as a young child and raised by foster parents in Skinners Pond, P.E.I., until he was 13. He then set out for a life on the road, travelling to and working in different Canadian provinces.
This month, actor and musician Cameron MacDuffee is bringing Connors’ story and music back to P.E.I. in a new show, The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside.
The Ontario-based performer, whose introduction to Stompin’ Tom was listening to Sudbury Saturday Night while at university, is thrilled about stepping into Connor’s boots.
“I feel honoured to be asked to portray somebody who is such a Canadian icon,” says MacDuffee, during a break in rehearsals for the show, which opens June 28 and runs for six nights a week until Aug. 30.
“To do it in the Maritimes, and especially on P.E.I. where he is one of the native sons, is a larger honour. I’m very aware of this connection and the pride that comes with that.”
Already he has had several encounters with people who knew Connors personally and have proceeded to tell him all their stories.
“Everybody has an experience of him of who he is and what he means. So, in some ways, I’m playing with people’s memories. And I’m really aware of that.
“So it’s an honour and a privilege but it’s also a real challenge to try to do it justice,” says MacDuffee of the musical that is staged like a Stompin’ Tom concert, but interspersed between the songs and the stories are flashback scenes that cover everything from Connors’ early years on the streets to his breakout success in Timmins and the rest of his musical journey.
“What’s so inspiring about Stompin’ Tom is that he wrote songs about the everyday man, specifically in the Canadian context,” he says.
Catherine O’Brien, the director of the show, says the Canadian actor is the perfect choice.
“Cameron has everything it takes to play a role like this. He’s such an accomplished actor, performer and musician that it was absolutely an easy choice to hire him .... He will give the audience the sense of who this man was and the story we’re telling.
“He’s such a grounded person and he’s grown up on the farm so he understands a lot about people and the land.
“He’s also a professional actor who can take on any role. He has such a natural charm that draws you in.”
Known to Prince Edward Island audiences for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in the Charlottetown Festival productiond of Ring of Fire and Johnny Deere in Dear Johnny Deere, MacDuffee is ready to take on Connors.
“Mostly up until now, I’ve been reading his biographies and listening to his music.
“Now I have to make it come alive in me.”
But he won’t magically become Connors.
“It’s a process where I have to try to honour and capture the spirit of that person and what he stood for and who he was and, as much as possible, find those little things that people relate to, whether it’s the certain style of the way he sang, his phrasing or the way he stomped.
“I have to find the little things that bring out Stompin’ Tom in me.
“And I’ve got to find the things in me that are like Stompin’ Tom.”
So he’s been embracing the material and trying to capture the spirit of it.
“I’ve been doing some stomping, but I haven’t used plywood yet. I’m curious to see how much sawdust I will make.”
AT A GLANCE
What: The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom.
When and where: Opening June 28 and running six nights per week until Aug. 30 at Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside.
Pleased as punch: “The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom is the culmination of a dream for everyone involved at the Harbourfront Theatre,” says Harbourfront general manager Kieran Keller.
Tickets: Available at the Harbourfront Theatre box office, 888-2500.