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REVIEW: Beautiful Scars is a rousing, heartfelt new musical on the life of Tom Wilson

iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.
/By / Apr 29, 2024

Beautiful Scars, Tom Wilson and Shaun Smyth’s soaring new musical about family, hope, and the power of music, oozes with one thing above all else — care.

There’s care for the story of musician Tom Wilson, who, at age 53, discovered he was, in fact, Indigenous, after being raised in a white family who refused to tell him who he really was. As we watch Wilson, played in shimmering, love-soaked layers by Sheldon Elter, come to grips with the destruction of his world as he once knew it, we see a support system materialize around him: his Mohawk family, for one, and his music, a creative lifeline nurtured over decades. As Wilson grapples with the lie — and the truth — he leans into these supports, with Elter singing the strokes of his story with a bleeding, open heart.

There’s care, too, for the audience, from the folks who could recite Wilson’s entire discography to those who’re completely unfamiliar with Hamilton’s hometown hero. Beautiful Scars introduces us to Wilson and his music, guiding us from room to room of his childhood pain with kindness and respect, but never does the show over-explain the long-haired rockstar or his importance to the Theatre Aquarius locale. Beautiful Scars trusts its audience to understand the significance of a First Nations musical produced at this large a scale, and the work carefully unpacks generations of Indigenous trauma, never asking the people watching to carry those wounds themselves. 

And finally, there’s care for the very art of musical theatre, in a production brought to life with integrity and sparkle by director Mary Francis Moore (also the artistic director of Theatre Aquarius). Each choice behind Beautiful Scars, co-written by Wilson and Smyth, lands with a satisfying weight: Jay Havens’ set design weaves in elements of Wilson’s own visual art, while Yolonda Skelton’s costume design echoes Wilson’s everyday wardrobe but enhances it with a theatrical flair. The scenography of Beautiful Scars sings even louder when placed in dialogue with the music, written by Wilson but led with a steady hand by music director Bob Foster, who shepherds fresh arrangements of these existing songs into their new context with style and grace.

Part of what makes Beautiful Scars work is its deviation from the traditional traps of a jukebox musical: Wilson’s songs, written about the peaks and valleys of life as they happened in real time, make sense when repurposed for this show, about, well, those same highs and lows. Jukebox musicals can bring with them a sense of incongruity, a certain awkwardness between the music and the scenarios happening next to it, but that’s not the case in Beautiful Scars. Wilson’s hands-on involvement in the show as co-creator helps blur the gap between the show and its real-life roots, and if you didn’t already know Wilson’s discography, you might not catch that these songs had rich, full lives before being transplanted to the Theatre Aquarius stage.

Elter, in a role I hope he has the chance to reprise for remounts immemorial, is joined by a rock-solid ensemble cast of actors who cycle between smaller roles. Thompson Wilson (yes, they’re related) plays Young Tom with vitality and spunk, endlessly watchable in this role  and other small parts. Kristi Hansen and Brandon McGibbon punctuate scenes from Wilson’s childhood with close harmonies and dazzling scenework, evoking simultaneous pain and warmth with total finesse. Valerie Planche is heartbreaking as Wilson’s biological mum, while Jeremy Proulx ably serves as the funny, stoic Bear, who escorts Wilson through the odyssey of his improbable life story.

Beautiful Scars is one of the most exciting new works to hit a Canadian stage in recent months, and as an early product of Theatre Aquarius’ National Centre for New Musicals, it signals promising times ahead for Canadian musical theatre. If you’re in Toronto, hop on the GO train; if you’re in Hamilton, head downtown. Either way, make sure you catch Beautiful Scars before it heads to bigger stages — this is a story that needs to be told, and there’s no more perfect place to tell it than in Wilson’s haunted hometown.

Beautiful Scars runs until May 11 at Theatre Aquarius. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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