by Lynn on May 5, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, Ont. playing until May 11.

By Tom Wilson and Shaun Smyth

Inspired by the book “Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home” by Tom Wilson.

Directed by Mary Francis Moore

Music supervision and Orchestrations/Arrangements by Bob Foster

Set by Jay Havens

Costumes by Yolonda Skelton

Lighting by Kevin Fraser

Sound  by Ranil Sonnadara

Movement by Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

Cast: Phil Davis

Sheldon Elter

Kristi Hansen

Brandon McGibbon

Valerie Planche

Jeremy Proulx

Thompson Wilson

Band: Bob Foster—Keyboards

Gary Craig—drums

David Gray—Guitar

Anna Ruddick—Bass

Beautiful Scars is a moving musical about identity, finding it and embracing it especially with its challenges.  

The Story.  Beautiful Scars by Tom Wilson and Shaun Smyth (who are both listed as playwright and co-creator), is about how Tom Wilson learned in his early 50’s that he was Indigenous. This was a deep family secret. First, Tom Wilson learned that the woman he thought was his cousin Janie, was in fact his mother. Janie was from Quebec. She got pregnant as a teenager and the man responsible took off.  The idea of having a baby out of wedlock was humiliating for the family so Janie gave up her baby to her aunt Bunny and uncle George. George was blinded in WWII which also complicated matters. Bunny could not have children, and probably didn’t want them, but took Tom and raised him as if he was her own.

Janie would visit, but had to swear that she would never tell Tom the truth about his birth. There was a rapport between Janie and Tom. When Tom learns the truth, he learns that he is of the Mohawk tribe. Being told he was Indigenous sent Tom into a tail spin.

In a way this was not a surprise because Tom had a sense that something was not right as he was growing up. It meant that he felt that he didn’t belong in the world he thought he was born into, a white one. He found music and became a successful rock and roll singer, with five Juno Awards for his albums. He’s a painter. Has written two autobiographies. He is a member of the Order of Canada.

Along the way Tom Wilson went to Los Angeles fell into the world of drugs and spiraled out of control. Beautiful Scarsis a musical that chronicles Tom Wilson’s journey to self-discovery of who he is, who his family is and what his identity is.

The Production Comment. The rule is that in the first five minutes of a musical you have to establish the theme, tone, idea etc. through the first song.  At the beginning of Beautiful Scars is the ‘song’ “RABBIT DANCE” which is a traditional Haudenosaunee song, played on the drum and sung by Phil Davis who is an Indigenous collaborator. That first song beautifully establishes the Indigenous world of Tom Wilson played with mournful detail by Sheldon Elter. There is a melding of Wilson’s music and traditional Indigenous music and dance to give the sense of the two worlds that he inhabited, even though he didn’t know about the Indigenous world until his early 50s. Then he embraced his Indigenous identity fully.

The rock band acts as spirits and characters in Wilson’s life who waft in and out of the action. Kristi Hansen usually in black leather, and singing, also plays Tom’s mother Bunny wearing a prim wig and comfortable clothing. Brandon McGibbon gyrates and rocks to the music but then morphs into George, Tom’s blind, respectable father.

And there is a wonderful character of Bear (Jeremy Proulx) who shadows Tom everywhere—because he is a protective presence who was with him even in the bad times. This is not a trickster who is impish, but an imposing presence in black leather and a black top hat.  He is beautifully played by Jeremy Proulx; imposing, commanding and yet calm.  Tom Wilson is played with anger and a sense of heart-break by Sheldon Elter. He has a haunted look in his eyes for much of the play until Tom Wilson realizes his long lost identity.

The production is directed by Mary Francis Moore with respect and sensitivity. She has paid homage to the Indigenous tradition by giving her production a sense of ceremony. Jay Havens’ set looks like a collage almost in miniature of important items in Tom’s life: the Bridge commemorating the Mohawk Skywalkers who build such bridges; stars that look like ceremonial lanterns; flowers, a moon, buildings suggesting a big city—all served the whole picture.   The production plays like an Indigenous ceremony full of tradition as well as a rousing rock and roll story.  The band and singers are rousing. Occasionally it was hard to make out the lyrics because the band drowned out the singers—always tricky to balance the sound.

Still, Beautiful Scars is a tribute to Tom Wilson who made a life for himself in the world of music and found his Indigenous roots and a sense of belonging in Hamilton, Ont. where he is revered.

Theatre Aquarius presents:

Plays until May 11, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (1 intermission)

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Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 maja ardal May 6, 2024 at 7:56 am

I loved this production. It is a great and unique Canadian musical. With its beginnings in a poor community of a working class steel town, it tells a Canadian story that bridges colonialism and Indigenous identity in a vivd and joyfully-produced way. And congratulations to Mary Francis Moore for thinking BIG in an era of shrinking cast sizes.
I do hope it can happen in other parts of Canada!


2 Karen Timmerman May 6, 2024 at 10:39 am

I saw Beautiful Scars last week . It was a powerful and moving theatre experience. Acting was outstanding especially Kristi Hansen, who played Tom’s mother so convincingly that I thought she might have been an older relative of Tom’s who was convinced to do the role.s .I didn’ t realized she was also the band singer until after the play. The onstage performances of Wilsons music were beautiful, I didn’t know much about Tom Wilson’s music but have become a fan.