Margaret Lattimore’s Ma Joad powers the MasterVoices Chorus’s The Grapes of Wrath

United StatesUnited States Ricky Ian Gordon, The Grapes of Wrath: Soloists, MasterVoices Chorus, Orchestra of St. Luke’s / Ted Sperling (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York, 17.4.2024. (RP)

MasterVoices Chorus’s The Grapes of Wrath © Toby Tenenbaum

MasterVoices Chorus celebrated Ted Sperling’s tenth anniversary as music director with a concert version of Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s The Grapes of Wrath. This was a reprise of the opera for the chorus and its conductor – it was given its New York City premiere by the Collegiate Chorale, as the group was called then, in 2010. It was the first work Sperling brought to the chorus, and one he would subsequently return to lead.

The opera has been updated by its creators multiple times since the world premiere in 2007, and again for this performance. This edition is slick, vibrant and emotionally wrenching. It is also timely and relevant, given the current homeless crisis in America.

Set in the Great Depression, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the tribulations of the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers during what is known as the Dust Bowl. A result of natural phenomenon and human factors in the late 1930s, the environmental catastrophe resulted in a mass migration from the Prairie States to California and other places. The Joads, as did tens of thousands of others in real life, made the harrowing journey to California drawn by promises of work that proved elusive.

The acclaimed novel won a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. It has also been burned and banned due to its supposedly obscene language and an unflinching depiction of the treatment of the Okies – a derogatory term that equated to scum in the popular parlance of the day. These economic refugees were called lazy, shiftless and greedy, when most were just down on their luck. Steinbeck’s portrayal of common folk, bankers and landowners motivated solely by greed, with no regard to human suffering or life, likewise provoked the ire of many.

The Gordon and Korie version of The Grapes of Wrath for MasterVoices is as much oratorio as opera. Two narrators, actors Joe Morton and J. Smith-Cameron, provided context and set the scene for the musical numbers. Sperling employed huge choral and orchestral forces for the performance, which necessitated that the cast be miked. The amplification undoubtedly made both narrators and singers more audible and intelligible, but it added an aural gloss and homogeneity to the performance.

In addition to conducting, Sperling also served as director and created effective tableaus for the scenes. Especially vivid and atmospheric were a truck stop dominated by the powerhouse performance of Bryonha Marie as a waitress named Mae; a starlit night for the tender, romantic duet between Mikaela Bennet’s Rose of Sharon and Schyler Vargas’s smooth-talking Connie Rivers; and a rollicking square dance.

Time and place were further established through photographs projected onto the rear of the stage. These depicted the beauty of nature as well as the destruction and desolation created by the dust storms. The human toll was shown through iconic photographs of the faces of desperate people who had lost everything including, for some, the will to live.

In this performance, as much by design as through the powerful performance of Margaret Lattimore, the drama evolved around Ma Joad. In a simple cotton dress, at times covered by a dirty old apron, Lattimore’s Ma Joad dispensed love, care and understanding to the family. Fortitude, more than hope, enable the woman to overcome the travails she suffered and endured.

[l-r] Jan Constantine (Granma), Margaret Lattimore (Ma Joad), John Brancy (Al), Kyle Oliver (Tom Joad), Christian Pursell (Noah), Victor Starsky (Jim Casy), Schyler Vargas (Connie Rivers), Gordon Henry (Winfield), Mikaela Bennett (Rose of Sharon) and Ruby Waxman (Ruthie) © Toby Tenenbaum

Her boys ranged from Kyle Oliver’s sensitive Tom, an idealist with a criminal past transformed into union organizer; John Brancy’s engaging, fun-loving Al; and the slow-witted Noah of Christian Pursell. All three of these singing actors had firm, resonant voices and winning stage personas, but Pursell was given the meatiest scene to display his talents. A simpleton, who pretty much went with the flow, Pursell’s Noah slowly became aware that the only way he could help his family was to spare them one more mouth to feed. With a bass-baritone as commanding as his stature, Noah’s decision to commit suicide by drowning was as moving as it was horrible to watch. Lattimore expressed Ma Joad’s grief over the loss of her son with simplicity and honesty. She sang of there being no innocence like that of a child with a simple dream, such as the one her dead boy possessed.

Romance blossomed and then faded and died in this ill-fated family. Rose of Sharon, the eldest of the Joad daughters, is married to Connie River. She is portrayed by the luminous-voiced Mikaela Bennet, who is first seen as radiant and heavily pregnant. Vargas’s Connie had an engaging charm and sparkle, which was magnified by his exciting baritone voice. He was, however, a cad who abandoned his pregnant wife. Bennet’s Rose of Sharon transitioned through despair to the embodiment of compassion in what seemed the flash of an eye.

Other notable contributions came from Victor Starsky, a smooth-talking pastor-cum-labor organizer who is murdered by a guard in the government-run camp where the Joads find a haven of sorts, and Malcom Mackenzie’s Uncle John. Mackenzie’s powerful baritone rang throughout the hall as he cast the body of Rose of Sharon’s still-born child, whom she had named Moses, into a river so that everyone could see ‘the fruits of their blindness’.

Nathan Gunn, who had played Tom Joad in MasterVoices’s 2010 production of The Grapes of Wrath, brought gravitas to the role of Pa Joad. Individual members of the chorus, including Jan Constantine’s Granma and David Fleiss’s Granpa, enriched the drama. Ruby Waxman as Ruthie and Gordon Henry’s Winfield brought spunkiness to their roles as the younger Joad children.

The real stars of the show were the members of MasterVoices, who sang with exuberance and polish. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s played with their customary excellence, and Sperling again demonstrated his theater chops by conducting a performance that flowed seamlessly and generated the powerful emotions which Gordon and Korie drew from Steinbeck’s timeless tale of disillusionment and heartbreak.

Rick Perdian

Director – Ted Sperling
Libretto – Michael Korie
Concert narration text- Kevin Doyle
Sound – Scott Lehrer
Costumes – Tracy Christensen
Lighting – Brian Tovar
Projections – Wendall K. Harrington

Narrators – Joe Morton and J. Smith-Cameron
Tom Joad – Kyle Oliver
Ma Joad – Margaret Lattimore
Mae – Bryonha Marie
Rose of Sharon – Mikaela Bennett
Jim Casy – Victor Starsky
Pa Joad – Nathan Gunn
Uncle John – Malcolm MacKenzie
Connie Rivers / Ragged Man / Truck Driver – Schyler Vargas
Noah – Christian Pursell
Al – John Brancy
Granma – Jan Constantine
Granpa – David Fleiss
Ruthie – Ruby Waxman
Winfield – Gordon Henry

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