The Ballad of Stompin' Tom plays at the Harbourfront Theatre, Summerside until Aug. 30.
This incessantly positive reviewer blew into the western capital Saturday past to assess the damage left by the heel of Canada's folky troubadour. Though Tom's probably searching out another good stiff cloud to keep time on these days, you can get a whiff of his spirit at the Harbourfront Theatre in The Ballad of Stompin' Tom.
The original play by David Scott, based mostly on Connors' autobiographies, was first staged in 2006, and was last seen by Island audiences in 2008.
Since his passing, I've thought a lot about Stompin' Tom. The man was always, in my head, the archetypal "living legend." He was part myth and part soil. It's odd to reflect on the very real death of a man who for 30 years of my life already seemed like someone who was long ago past, like a Davy Crockett or Paul Bunyan or something.
The image that we all know is one that Connors' helped cultivate, to be sure. No matter what was thrown at him, he was the teller of the story. And I gather this play stays true to that narrative. Here, we are shown a few important chapters of the man's life, interspersed with some of his more famous tunes.
Cameron MacDuffee plays a convincing Stomper. He has that tall, lean build, with a bit of a worn slouch, and a real character face, with a squinty-eyed grin. Through the play's dialogue we see a bit of a softer, beta Tom than the no-nonsense grit captured in interviews.
But MacDuffee has clearly studied Tom's vocal idiosyncrasies. Both spoken and sung, MacDuffee channels the cadence of Tom's delivery, the ragged silly country whine and the dry low ends of a life fueled on liquor and cigarettes. He played with the iconic voice, but avoided exaggeration.
Though Connors may have seemed to float through his lyrics casually, he was very specific in his melodies, dragging some words and nimbly tumbling others. There, MacDuffee is on point. His performance of Sudbury Saturday Night was a almost a stamp of old footage I've seen from 1973 at the Horseshoe Tavern.
In the vignettes that shed light between songs, director Catherine O'Brien and the actors handle well the delicate balance of comedy and hardship that was Tom's life. Emily Oriold-Keay is particularly engaging as Tom's struggling, vice-riddled mother. Moments that flirt with the melodramatic are balanced off by plenty of laughs, many of which are brought by the multi-character simpletons, Gordon Gammie and Darren Keay.
Marlene Handrahan ably flits between serious and silly roles, and the younger actors are quite sweet and endearing.
A crisp band that would be at home in any of the smoky bars Connors played joins MacDuffee on stage. Chas Guay is a prime choice for music director, as his unerring professionalism comes with a nice earthy taste. Roland Beaulieu finds slick licks on electric while Dale DesRoches accompanies the stomp on the kit. And it's nice to see Billy MacInnis, friend and bandmate to the man himself, helping bring the songs to the people.
When Stompin' Tom writes, the lyrics and the simple melodies, they're clearly for the working class. But there is no less art and beauty in them. They start out sounding like novelties, with simple rhymes and simple chords. And then, at some point, maybe even the 100th listen, you recognize the depth. There was a certain outsider genius to his hooks, too. His vocal melodies always had some kind of perfectly timed, yet unexpected hiccup.
On this night, everything abuzz from tropical storm Arthur, the power surged during the curtain call and we were treated to an impromptu, unplugged send-off. Stompin Tom didn't need a mic.
Lennie MacPherson, a Charlottetown-based writer, actor and musician, writes theatre reviews for The Guardian during the summer months. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.