Story: The Great Depression is choking the hope out of millions of Americans. As harsh as the economic reality is, everything gets worse in Oklahoma when the state is ravaged by a merciless drought, creating a “Dust Bowl” that stifles any optimism for recovery in the near future.
Faced with too many mouths to feed on too little income, the Joad family decides to head to California, where it is reported that jobs for manual laborers are plentiful in the fields. Tom Joad is fresh out of jail, on parole for involuntary manslaughter, though, and is forbidden to cross the state line.
He makes the decision, however, for the good of his family to move west with his parents, his grandparents, his grown brothers Al and Noah, his pregnant sister Rosasharn and her husband Connie and Tom's youngest brother Winfield and youngest sister Ruthie. Joining the Joads is fallen preacher Jim Casy, who has nothing tying him down to the barren land of his birth and is hoping for a fresh start in California.
Along the way on Route 66 the Joads encounter more troubled families, including a man who is returning from the West Coast who warns them that supply far exceeds demand in the lush California fields, which enables greedy owners to keep wages low and workers more or less in indentured servitude. Can the Joads follow Ma Joad’s edict that they stick together in the face of any and all adversity?
Highlights: John Steinbeck’s classic 20th century novel about the plight of the common man against the harsh indifference of nature and human greed is being given a magnificent and moving interpretation by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in this premiere of a new revised version by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie.
Other Info: Gordon and Korie’s original and much lengthier adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel received its world premiere in 2007, commissioned by the Minnesota Opera. A decade later, they have returned to their prized but cumbersome initial effort and trimmed it down to a more manageable two acts, which still consume nearly three hours with intermission.
This ‘streamlined’ version, though, moves at a steady pace and can keep an audience absorbed throughout. Certainly, conductor Christopher Allen engages members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in a compelling reading of Gordon’s highly listenable and unmistakably American score, which recalls Copland works such as Appalachian Spring or A Lincoln Portrait. Hints of folk music, bluegrass, blues, gospel and jazz permeate Gordon’s affecting music which distinctly matches the subject matter.
Korie’s book features conversations written in the dialect of itinerant laborers of the 1930s, so the grammar isn’t polished but is true to the locale and the socioeconomic sector that is the focus of Steinbeck’s story. Stage director James Robinson succeeds in getting his cast to fully embrace their characters, not just in song but in some powerfully acted performances that add ballast to the grim tale.
Allen Moyer’s set design is as lean and spare as the dialogue, appropriately underscoring the dire circumstances of the characters. It is accentuated by the dramatic illumination in Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design, whether in the harshness of night scenes or the sobering filtering of sunlight through a barn at the conclusion. Costume designer James Schuette dresses the players in the utilitarian wardrobe of time and place, offset by the fancy three-piece suits favored by the ruling class.
This revised version also has its share of poetic moments and balletic choreography created by Sean Curran, which elevates the plight of the characters to traditionally tragic levels. At every turn, the performers are equal to the challenges set before them and respond to Robinson’s insightful and clear direction.
The sprawling cast, which frequently overwhelms the stage to visualize the dire straits of the poor, is led by mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner in the role of Ma Joad. Goeldner, who made her OTSL debut last year in Shalimar the Clown, showcases her vibrant voice as the diminutive but strong-willed matriarch of the Joad clan, a woman who measures discipline and mercy in equal amounts.
Tobias Greenhalgh, a former Richard Gaddes Festival Artist and former Gerdine Young Artist for OTSL, is solid in the role of Tom Joad, using his rich baritone to shape Korie’s gruff yet poetic words. Tenor Geoffrey Agpalo, another former Gaddes Festival Artist and Gerdine Young Artist, is a recipient of the Richard Gaddes Career Award, easy to understand given his clear, solid vocal interpretations and command of the role of the lapsed preacher Casy.
Other fine performances are given by Deanna Breiwick as Rosasharn, Robert Orth as Pa’s embittered and alcoholic brother Uncle John, Michael Day as the impetuous Al Joad, and Hugh Russell in the highly affecting role of Noah Joad, the ‘simple’ brother who makes the ultimate sacrifice to help his family the best way he knows how.
Levi Hernandez plays Pa Joad, Andrew Lovato makes his Opera Theatre debut as Rosasharn’s weak husband Connie, and youthful Hannah Dishman and Devin Best portray the youngest Joad members, Ruthie and Winfield. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Panara shines in her OTSL debut as Mae, the popular waitress at a truck stop, who sings about the nobility of the “knights of the road” who tip her generously, while she in turn takes pity on the Joad children.
Literally dozens of other singers, under chorus master Cary John Franklin's savvy guidance, take to the stage to swell scenes of union unrest, misery in a dirty, despair-filled Hooterville and other scenes.
Steinbeck’s compassion for the middle and lower classes and his sharp condemnation of their oppressors’ greed shines through it all in this beautifully realized, revised version of The Grapes of Wrath.
Opera: The Grapes of Wrath
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: May 31, June 9, 15, 17(m), 21(m), 25
Tickets: $25-$129; contact 961-0644 or www.ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard