As a young lady from a small town in southwestern Ontario, I knew Stompin’ Tom Connors’ music long before I walked in the door of the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope to see its production of The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom. But this show taught me about the man behind the legend: the man who fought for Canadian music, the orphan who never stayed in one place for very long, the teen who really lived the song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” the man who sold more records than the Beatles, and the man who never got too big for his britches, continuing to perform in small towns like my native Kingsville long after becoming famous.
The Capitol itself is noteworthy; one of the last remaining “atmospheric theatres” in North America, according to Capitol Theatre’s artistic director Rob Kempson, the interior of the space is magical. Permanent facades of houses with windows and awnings flank the stage, while the ceiling is painted to look like a beautiful evening at dusk. Originally constructed to house a cinema, the Capitol Theatre has taken on a brilliant second life with live performances.
The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom, written by David Scott, is one such performance. It tells the life story of Tom Connors, a young boy from the East Coast who grows up to be one of Canada’s most beloved folk singers. Throughout the two-hour performance, we watch as little Tommy is abandoned by his mother, teenage Tom buys his first guitar, and later becomes the Stompin’ Tom we all know and love.
Kempson brilliantly directs the production. Along with his creative team, he’s developed a spectacular show that truly focuses on the music, while also creating memorable visuals along the way. Brandon Kleiman’s set design exposes the original brick back wall of the theatre, while platforms and stairs surround an almost two-storey replica of Stompin’ Tom’s guitar. Joyce Padua’s costume design gives an immediate sense of time and place; the men’s plaid work shirts and coveralls juxtaposed against the women’s floral 50’s style dresses encapsulate the era in which Connors grew up. Emily Porter’s sound design and Colette Pin’s lighting complete the experience; while at times the old building’s acoustics muddy some lyrics, the overall feeling is of being at a concert, and a stunning one at that.
The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom boasts a wildly talented cast of actors/musicians. Led by music director David Archibald, everyone on stage plays musical instruments and sings live throughout the performance. Scott Carmichael stars in the title role. You can tell he’s no stranger to the role, having played the titular role at the Sudbury Theatre Centre, or to the music, as he inhabits Stompin’ Tom fully and with great flair.
Jack Barr, at the ripe age of ten, gives a fantastic performance as young Tommy, and plays four instruments onstage. Haneul Yi brings a heartfelt sincerity to teenage Tom, taking us through some of the most moving parts of Connors’ story with grace, while Donna Garner gives a wonderful performance as Isabel; her musicianship is matched in her acting prowess as she delivers us this broken, but not defeated, mother. Andy Trithardt and Alex St. Kitts give funny, vibrant performances as Gaetan and Pete, who own and operate the first bar where Connors gets a job. Rounding out the cast is Melissa Payne as Cora, whose passionate fiddle playing had all of our toes tapping.
Whether you’re a lifelong fan or new to Tom Connors’ music, you’re likely to love The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom. It’s a perfect blend of story and music that tells the tale of one of Canada’s heroes.
The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom runs through July 2 at Capitol Theatre Port Hope. Tickets are available here.
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