Stompin' Tom story hits the stage

NOEL GALLAGHER - London Free Press

, Last Updated: 3:37 AM ET

The life and tunes of legendary Canadian balladeer Stompin' Tom Connors will get a dramatic salute at the 2006 Blyth Festival.

"It's a rags-to-riches story. This guy personifies the

Canadian dream," says David Scott, whose play, The Ballad of Stompin' Tom, launches its world premiere run Thursday.

Veteran Canadian actor Randy Hughson stars as the gritty, foot-stomping country singer in the show featuring Connors' well-known songs. On that hit list are Bud the Spud, Tillsonburg, To It and At It, Sudbury Saturday Night and The Hockey Song.

Against that musical backdrop, the play recalls the troubled youth and early career struggles of the St. John, N.B., native, as chronicled in his two autobiographies, Stompin' Tom Before the Fame and The Connors Tone.

"It's remarkable what trials and crises Tom went through and I immediately realized his traumatic life story had the makings of a play," says Scott, 41, editor of alumni publications at the University of Western Ontario.

Born in Ottawa, Scott grew up in Seaforth, where he was editor of the Huron Expositor and served as the town's mayor from 1998 to 2000.

In 2001, the playwright read The Connors Tone and began a letter-writing relationship -- "via good, old-fashioned snail mail" -- with the country singer, who eventually endorsed Scott's stage play proposal.

The 70-year-old icon's approval was crucial, since many previous projects had stalled when Connors refused to allow the use of his songs.

Scott then contacted the Blyth Festival, which had presented his first play, the journalism comedy There's Nothing in the Paper, in 1997.

"There's a difference between using someone else's fame for your own ends and celebrating that artist's career," says Eric Coates, the festival's artistic director who, in 2004, commissioned Scott to write the play.

"We've never before tackled a play focused on a living, breathing entity who's so well-known to so many people. Stompin' Tom has always had a unique connection with Canadians. Our hugest concern was about getting that right."

Like Scott, Coates marvels at the drama inherent in Connors' real-life saga: "Tom's an extraordinarily complex guy and his history reads like a Hollywood script. It's practically Dickensian. And yet, despite all of that

trouble and darkness, his songs are surprisingly benign and upbeat."

Scott says his play's theme is rooted in the stubborn determination of its title figure: "The message is to never give up. Tom's always been a fighter and a survivor. He shows us the importance of following your dreams and never letting them go, no matter what."

Hughson was Coates' first choice when the director was casting the show's pivotal role.

"This has been quite a bit different from doing a straight play," says the 44-year-old actor entering his fifth Blyth Festival season.

"I had to get my old guitar chops back and I spent hours of research at the CBC archives in Toronto, watching as many tapes of Stompin' Tom interviews and performances as I could," adds Hughson who also had to "tune up" his singing skills.

"Tom's got this nasal, throaty voice and he has his own patterns, rhythms and cadences. At the same time, I'm not Rich Little doing an impression of Stompin' Tom here," explains the performer. "The most important thing for us is to show the moving story of what Tom made of himself and how the people of Canada became his family.

"He's the hero of what he calls 'the common folk' -- the farmers, the miners, the truck drivers, the fishermen, all the working-class people. There's this incredible bond he has with them and them with him."

"If this was the United States, a tribute like this would have been done years ago to someone of Tom's stature," Scott says

Now a resident of Southern Ontario, Connors is slated to view his namesake play during its Blyth Festival stay, but isn't expected to attend Thursday night's premiere performance. The singer today begins a 17-stop concert tour that includes a London visit at Centennial Hall July 13.


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