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REVIEW: Tom Wilson’s Beautiful Scars is compelling, entertaining

The world premiere musical takes the audience on a rollercoaster ride of mirth, myth and tragedy, culminating in a conclusion that is both defiant and triumphant.

Theatre Aquarius artistic director and Beautiful Scars director/dramaturge Mary Francis Moore introduced the first of two preview performances of the world premiere musical by noting that these performances would be followed by more intensive rehearsals as cast, crew and creators tweak the play based on the audience response.

Judging by the rousing reaction we observed on Wednesday, major changes before opening night on Friday are unlikely.

Beautiful Scars is inspired by Tom Wilson’s best-selling 2017 memoir, Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home. As is now well-known, the book recounts the extraordinary life journey of the charismatic singer/songwriter/visual artist/author now recognized as a genuine Hamilton artistic legend.

Sheldon Elter as Tom Wilson in Beautiful Scars. PHOTO: Dahlia Katz

Wilson’s life was rocked in 2012 when he discovered a zealously guarded family secret. He had grown up on Hamilton’s east Mountain believing he was the son of George and Bunny Wilson, described in his own words as “a blind war vet and a French-Canadian she-warrior.”

Learning that he was in fact born to a young Indigenous woman from the Mohawk Kahnawake community led Wilson to view his life as “a living, breathing lie,” and propelled him into an ongoing deep exploration of his Indigenous community and family roots.

You know a life journey is a compelling one when it spawns not just a critically acclaimed biography but a full-length documentary film and now a highly anticipated stage musical. Beautiful Scars, the playdoes Tom Wilson’s story the justice it deserves.

Co-written by Wilson and actor/playwright Shaun Smyth, the play adheres faithfully to the search for identity that is at the core of the memoir. That journey is vividly illuminated by a well-curated selection of material from Wilson’s extensive musical discography, from Junkhouse and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to Lee Harvey Osmond.

Here, the songs feature different cast members taking the lead, all effectively, while full company renditions of some tunes up the onstage energy. These numbers are seamlessly integrated alongside the narrative in Beautiful Scars, with one striking example being the Junkhouse classic “Out Of My Head.” Including it here was a perfect way to showcase Wilson’s descent into drug addiction and self-destructive behaviour as that band found a degree of fame.

Led by noted Indigenous actor Sheldon Elter as Tom Wilson, the seven-member cast portray Wilson, his younger version (fittingly played by his son Thompson Wilson), his alter-ego/”spirit animal” Bear, his real-life mother Janie, and adoptive parents Bunny and George Wilson, with Indigenous collaborator Phil Davis joining them by adding Indigenous musical and cultural colourings.

All cast members inhabit those roles skilfully, with their characters emerging as flawed yet sympathetic individuals. That especially applies to the depiction of Bunny, one that encompasses anger, sadness, and empathy.

In the key role of Tom, Elter inhabits this rather larger than life personality with gusto, capturing his mannerisms and speech patterns, as those of us who know Wilson can attest.

The literary eloquence of Wilson’s work on the printed page is also captured neatly in the production, one reaffirming the emotional and lyrical power of his compositions. Key songs from his back catalogue are reprised here, alongside two strong new originals, “Death Row Love Affair” and the show-stopping “Standing The Line,” a co-write by Wilson and fellow hometown greats Daniel Lanois and Terra Lightfoot. Co-writers on other tunes employed here include Colin James, Serena Ryder, Stephen Fearing (Tom’s bandmate in Blackie and the Rodeo Kings), Paul Reddick, Matt Andersen, Jessie O’Brien, and Thompson Wilson.

RELATED: Read all about the making of the play here!

Valerie Planche as Janie and Sheldon Elter as Tom. PHOTO: Dahlia Katz

That's an elite grouping indeed. The strength of this material is brought to new life by the cast and A-list band, helping make the production a success in the view of a scribe who is usually not at all enamoured of the musicals genre.

The production values on display are on point, as is the set depicting the twin bridges of Hamilton/Burlington and Kahnawake, reportedly Wilson’s idea.  Some of his vivid artwork is also employed, from painted guitars to motifs on the backdrop curtain.

Not surprisingly, the hometown audience reacted warmly to the many Hamilton references in the play, though some of these may be lost on theatre-goers in other locales, when/if Beautiful Scars is staged in other cities.

This play takes the audience on a rollercoaster ride of mirth, myth and tragedy, culminating in a conclusion that is both defiant and triumphant. Wilson’s search for his true identity has turned him into a potent advocate for Indigenous issues, one who demands to be listened to. As he declares in the play’s program, “This is a story of identity and decolonization. One man’s journey that represents nations of people who have fought to survive under an occupation that has taken everything from them.”

Beautiful Scar’s final number, “Standing The Line,” exemplifies that struggle: “My blood will not be ignored.” The lights dim, a standing ovation follows, and the full cast then launches into the play’s title song, to riveting effect.

Given the timely nature of its core theme of Indigenous identity, Beautiful Scars is an important work. Thanks to the sterling efforts of its creators and cast, it is also both compelling and entertaining.

The cast of Beautiful Scars, from left: Phil Davis as artist/Indigenous collaborator, Valerie Planche as Janie, Sheldon Elter as Tom, Thompson Wilson as Young Tom/ensemble, Brandon McGibbon as George/ensemble, Jeremy Proulx as Bear and Kristi Hansen as Bunny/ensemble. PHOTO: Dahlia Katz


Beautiful Scars at Theatre Aquarius
190 King William St., Hamilton
April 24 to May 11
Tickets here or by calling 905-522-7529
Additional credits:
Bob Foster as conductor/keyboards
Lighting design by Kevin Fraser
Set design by Jay Havens
Costume design by Yolonda Skelton