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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
March 2007
“The Grapes of Wrath”

The Minnesota Opera offered the world premiere of “The Grapes of Wrath” in February. Written by gay librettist Michael Korie and gay composer Ricky Ian Gordon, I felt that I was in the presence of greatness, because this opera, co-commissioned with the Utah Symphony and Opera, was brilliance itself. Korie, whose work includes the opera “Harvey Milk,” and the lyrics for the musical, “Grey Gardens,” has left little out of John Steinbeck’s novel. This is terrific, if problematic, because the first act is almost two hours long, though its filled with necessary exposition.

Still, this is a minor quibble, because director Eric Simonson uses Allen Moyer’s sets and Karin Kopischke’s costumes efficiently in a minimalist approach which captures the sense of the era of the novel. Gordon’s score has moments remnant of jazzy Bernstein and somber Weill, while maintaining a sound of its own that captures, beautifully, the mood and conviction of the work.

The story follows the Joad family as they cross Oklahoma, leaving behind the dust bowl for the promised land of California, where their hopes are continually dashed during President Hoover’s Depression.

Standout performances include Jesse Blumberg as Connie Rivers, Andrew Wilkowske as Noah, Roger Honeywell as Casy, Kelly Kaduce as Rosasharn and Rosalind Elias as Grandma Joad.

In the pivotal roles of Ma and Tom Joad, respectively, Deanne Meek and Brian Leerhuber magnificently carry the audience through the triumphs and tragedies of this American family doing what it can to survive.

The Grapes of Wrath moves on to Salt Lake City in May. During the second interval, I briefly spoke to Ricky Ian Gordon, mentioning I thought this opera deserves a place in the world opera repertoire. He thinks that it will have one. Bravo!

“Zombie Prom”

The 1950s delivered a lot of grade Z drive-in movies, and those have served as the inspiration for “Zombie Prom,” a snazzy musical, with a book and lyrics by John Dempsey and score by Dana P. Rowe, based on a story by Dempsey and Hugh Murphy. With Zombie Prom, the Minneapolis Musical Theatre proved again, that this is the kind of show they do best, a quirky, silly show thats enormously entertaining.

Director Steve Meerdink has filled the colorful stage with poodle skirts, geeky bow ties, and a Zombie in a Tina Turner wig. The high school girls are all named after foods like Ginger, Coco and Candy, and the leading lady is named Toffee. The script has evidently been influenced, at least in part, by early John Waters movies.

“Zombie Prom” has a fairly obvious plot: rebel orphan boy meets innocent good girl, and when her parents reject him, he, in desperation, runs into the nuclear power plant. He is buried at sea, only to return as a zombie. Against both support and prejudice, the two proclaim their love for one and all as they prepare to dance the night away at the Senior Prom.

Their nemesis in all this is Miss Delilah Strict, the school’s principal, whose character is remnant of the role that Melanie Chartoff played on Parker Lewis “Can’t Lose.” Miss Strict is played by Kim Kivens, who steals the show.

Among the other standout performances are those of Emily Brooke Hansen as Toffee, Thomas Karki as Eddie Flagrante, a tabloid reporter, and Shaun Nathan Baer as Jonny, the rebel zombie.

With comments like “Dick Clark is looking old,” and plenty of gay and straight sexual double entendres, “Zombie Prom” is a far cry from such musicals as “Bye, Bye, Birdie” and “Grease.” Meerdink’s direction is daring fun, making “Zombie Prom” is an enormously entertaining treat for audiences tired of the standard musical fare.

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