'Grapes of Wrath' opens in Sarasota

New adaptation by Frank Galati is next up at Asolo Repertory Theatre

mclear@bradenton.comMarch 13, 2014 

Peggy Roeder and Christian Conn star in Asolo Rep's production of "The Grapes of Wrath." Annamae Bafia/PUBLICITY PHOTO

It's arguably the most important American novel of the 20th century, and it was turned into one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

Now John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" comes to the Asolo Repertory Theatre stage in a new adaptation by Frank Galati.

"I think what's so amazing about this adaptation is that it pulls all the essence of the novel into a muscular two hours and 15 minutes," said Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of Asolo Rep. He's directing the production of "The Grapes of Wrath" that opens Friday at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota.

In recent months, some of the buzz about the new adaptation refers to it as a musical. Edwards is adamant in saying that's not accurate.

"This is not a musical," he said. "It is a play with music."

One character in the play plays guitar and sings, Edwards said. The songs fill a variety of functions, sometimes advancing the plot. But it's not like a traditional musical in which the characters suddenly break into song.

"There are a couple of songs that work in a Brechtian way, commenting on the action," Edwards said.

Most people think of the novel and the film as sad and contemplative, but Galati's adaptation is briskly paced and entertaining.

"It's even funny," said Christian Conn, who plays Tom Joad. "It's hard to describe the way in which it's funny, but there's a lot of sardonic humor. It takes you on a roller-coaster ride."

Conn, incidentally, is also now playing Public Gar is Asolo Rep's production of "Philadelphia, Here I Come," which Galati directed.

One of the most iconic performances in screen history is Henry Fonda's portrayal of Joad. That might intimidate some actors and directors, but not Conn and Edwards.

"I have the luxury of not having seen the movie in quite a awhile," Conn said. "So that's not intimidating. To me what's intimidating is trying to do justice to this novel, because it really is one of my favorite books."

Besides, Edwards said, no matter how great a performance might be, that doesn't mean it's the "right" way to play that role.

"Characters aren't cages," he said. "Every actor brings something of himself to the role. There's no perfect Tom Joad. There's a perfect Henry Fonda portrayal of Tom Joad, but no perfect Tom Joad."

Details: March 15-April 19 at the Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: Various. Tickets: $29-$73. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.

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