Stompin’ Tom Musical Salutes the Story of Small-Town Canada

In entertainment, Local

By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Nobody told the story of small-town Canada like Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Tillsonburg, Bud the Spud, Sudbury Saturday night, the former theme song to the CBC program Marketplace and his most famous tune The Hockey Song – look at the familiar titles, and it’s a rare Canadian who can’t relate to one or more as applying to his or her own life.

How it all came to be is on the stage at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre, as their Summer Stage Series continues with The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom.

Capitol Artistic Producer Rob Kempson is the director for this show, and it happens to be one he has directed before. And when he did, he also had the pleasure of lead actor Scott Carmichael in the title role back then.

The dramatic set is simply a giant guitar, a few frameworks and no rear curtain – exposing the wall of the theatre to reveal everything.

“I was trying to find ways of stripping away the artifice and show as much of the theatre-making as possible. We literally tore down the curtain,” Kempson said.

He took one more bold step with the casting.

Having directed it before, he was aware that buying the rights to this show commits one to having a proper band. He has obtained permission to go with eight actor-musicians, accomplished instrumentalists who can also play supporting parts. For example, young Jack Barr (who plays Tom as a child) plays four instruments, and Hanuel Li, who plays teen-age Tom, is also there to play back-up with his mandolin.

“Every single person on stage plays multiple instruments because they are wildly talented folk, and they are also actually telling the story,” Kempson said.

“We are dealing with the story of Stompin’ Tom as a community, so everyone is participating in the story.”

Kempson finds this approach consistent with the way this music celebrated community in Canada, “particularly in small-town Canada,” he pointed out, expressing pride in the diversity of his cast and the rejection of musical cliches.

To those who dismissed Stompin’ Tom as unpolished, Carmichael pointed to his compositions.

“He was more about being a songwriter and writing songs about everybody he met in Canada from all 10 provinces and territories,” Carmichael said.

“The best songwriters aren’t always the prettiest singers, but boy – does he ever have the right songs.”

Though it is widely known that Stompin’ Tom grew up in an orphanage, Donna Garner (who also plays accordion) portrays his mother. Asked about this, Carmichael counselled patience.

“You’ll find out how, in fact, he got separated from his mother, how he found himself in an orphanage, how he found himself in a foster home, how he found himself riding the rails – literally – at the age of 14 with a guitar, literally singing for his supper.”

He recalls reading somewhere that Stompin’ Tom considered that his real education was from going back and forth across the country.

“He says he never would have survived without the hospitality of the people of the north, the people who took him in.”

The warmth he felt for these people is in his music, of course, but he wrote about all aspects of their lives, as well as all the aspects of his own – his time working on a tobacco farm in Tillsonburg, his years on the bar circuit.

When he recreates these whiskey-soaked nights, the cast is there to support him, including young Jack – who has just turned 10, but already plays piano, shaker, banjo, ukulele and washboard. He plays a few minor characters, but young Tom is his major role.

Stompin’ Tom died in 2013, so Jack is too young to have any personal memory of him. But he prepared for his role by listening to his songs to get the feel and the rhythm of this music. Now he feels comfortable with the task at hand, and he is ready to go.

“I like his music,” he stated.

“I am not sure what he was like as a person but, as a songwriter, I like that definitely.”

Interviewed the day before opening night, Carmichael said he is looking forward to the run.

“I would like to say it’s an honour and a privilege and a big responsibility to play this role. We are starting to lose our Canadian singer-songwriters from back then,” he said.

“I am personally pleased and thrilled to be working here at the Capitol. I have seen many friends and colleagues perform here over the years, and I’m happy to be here. It’s a beautiful theatre and a lovely town to spend a part of my summer in.”

The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom runs from June 9 through July 2.

Looking beyond that, the Summer Stage Series will present two comedies and a musical – Prairie Nurse July 14 to 20, Mickey and Judy July 27 to Aug. 6, and Little Shop of Horrors Aug. 11 to Sept. 3.

For information on tickets to any of these, visit, drop into the Capitol Theatre box office at 20 Queen St. Or call 905-885-1071.

Cecilia Nasmith
Author: Cecilia Nasmith

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