The Grapes of Wrath – Concert Version – Powerful

The Grapes of Wrath MasterVoices Carnegie Hall 4/17/2024 Credit Photo: Toby Tenenbaum

Realizing John Steinbeck’s iconic 1939 novel Grapes of Wrath, this modern opera creates a rich landscape of both Depression history and heartrending trials of the Joad family. “When dawn would break/There would be no day/Just a dull glow behind the grey…a man could take a walk/And never see his feet” conjures the dust bowl, symbolizing hardships of the U.S. during the 1930s. Marvelous images depict devastating poverty. The family’s tenant shack is literally flattened. “Owner men” say they have to go.

Back Row: Victor Starsky, Nathan Gunn, Margaret Lattimore, Jan Constantine, Malcolm MacKenzie, Kyle Oliver, Christian Pursell, Mikaela Bennett, Schyler Vargas. Front Row: Ruby Waxman, David Fleiss, John Brancy, Henry Gordon

Joined by son Tom (Kyle Oliver) paroled from prison, 13 of them pile into a truck with select belongings and head for ostensible work in California. “This dead land is us/All its hardship is us,” mournfully sings Ma Joad (Margaret Lattimore, palpably exhausted). The theme hauntingly returns. Travel is hard and spare. “Got no abode/Not on the plenty road…”

The country is hostile to “Oakies, shit-heel hicks, poor white trash.” Advertisements for labor don’t tell the real story – too many needy people, too few jobs. Grandpa, then Grandma die. The “lapsed” preacher (Victor Starsky) has a soaring tenor. A beaten man warns them to go back. “I can starve in my own backyard.”

Christian Pursell (Noah), Mikaela Bennett (Rose of Sharon) Schyler Vargas (Connie)

Pregnant Rose of Sharon Joad (Mikaela Bennett) and her husband Connie Rivers (Schyler Vargas) have big dreams that won’t weather their plight. The appealing vocalists warm every appearance. Pause for gas at a truck stop finds  Pa Joad (Nathan Gunn) asking for bread from the surly waitress/café owner (Bryonha Marie). A catchy song is one of several colored by Broadway: “Truck drivers, they’re A-1 guys/Hardly seem to mind week old pies…”

Three hundred miles of the Mojave Desert stood between the Joads and California. We hear from everyone in overlapping passages. They have $40 left ($911.92 today). Time passes. It doesn’t go far. Tents or paper shacks provide minimal shelter in successive shanty towns/ Hoovervilles:  “…anywhere folk is so broke/A person lives like a pig in a poke.” The Joads watch fruit destroyed in order to raise prices. Much like today, the practice is appalling.

Margaret Lattimore (Ma), Nathan Gunn (Pa), Mikaela Bennett (Rose of Sharon), John Brancy (Al)

Childlike Noah (Christian Purcell) dies by suicide so the family has one less mouth to feed. Both vocal solo and acting are vividly poignant. The family moves again, but begins to drift apart. A government run camp for the dispossessed called “a social experiment” is the first time the kids see a toilet and shower. Ma teaches them to use a sink. Depiction is tender. When the Joads finally get work, they’re unaware it’s as scabs. Violence hovers just outside a community dance – another refreshing number.

Rose of Sharon’s baby, Moses, is stillborn. His fate is a declaration of defiance. Ma and Rose share a beautiful duet. “Hangin’ on’s what we do/Men don’t finish what we see through.” Tom meets an old friend only to see him pointlessly killed by a vigilante deputy whom he then murders. The young man must run. “I ain’t leavin’ your heart, Ma.” He says goodbye. A big storm levels everything. “You can’t pick cotton wet. It swell up like a bug.” Ma and Rose run for higher ground. A last scene is immensely affecting.

Margaret Lattimore (Ma), Kyle Oliver (Tom)

Character voices are terrific, each and every one a pleasure. Master Voices chorus adds texture and heft.

The complete staged opera is three acts with two intermissions, yet we feel no absence of story during the deftly edited concert version. The only loose end is that Ma Joad doesn’t immediately indicate she knows her son Noah has died by suicide. The family moves on before there’s implication of awareness. Narration sets a scene or tells us what we then hear in song, the latter perhaps not always necessary. Adroit dialogue is redolent of Steinbeck vernacular.

Lyrics carry the tale specific to character. Format and melody of some songs are closer to what we think of as Broadway musical material, less “wandering” than opera. These are neatly braided in.

Narrators J. Smith Cameron and Joe Morton contribute vibrancy. Stage Direction works wonderfully; every singer is in character.

Archival projections by Wendall K. Harrington are so evocative and precise they might have been shot for the story. Tracy Christensen’s costumes are just right.

Photos by Toby Tenenbaum

Master Voices presents:
The Grapes of Wrath – Concert Version
Music by Ricky Ian Gordon
Libretto by Michael Korie
Concert Narration by Kevin Doyle
Orchestrations by Ricky Ian Gordon and Bruce Coughlin
Based on the novel by John Steinbeck
Ted Sperling, Conductor/Director
MasterVoices/Orchestra of St. Luke’s

Carnegie Hall April 17, 2024

Read Maria-Cristina Necula’s interview with Ricky Ian Gordon.

About Alix Cohen (1751 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.