Troubadour Everyman and mythic storyteller. Play narrator and occasional actor. Interpretive instrumentalist, weaving an evocative score underneath searing human drama. Guardian of the precious flame of human spirit…multi-faceted, professional performance artist and musician Sonny Franks wears a number of significant hats in the stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s celebrated novel The Grapes of Wrath, as presented by Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre in co-production with Oklahoma City University and the Oklahoma Historical Society. The show opens September 26 and runs through October 5 in Oklahoma City, as part of the national 75th anniversary celebration of the Pulitzer-awarded novel’s publication by the National Steinbeck Center in California.
Sonny Franks, the artist and man, grasps a clear picture of his unique role in this production. “I’m there to add spice, a sort of inspirational narrator and one man band, stepping across time, haunting the hearts and souls of the characters and expressing their innermost feelings.” An original score was written for the adaptation; but Artistic Director of City Rep, Donald Jordan, and the production’s stage director, Dr. Harry Parker, felt the actual music of the era was too rich a resource to not use. They both recognized Sonny’s instincts and skills as an artist and musical director. They cast him in the show to find the right way to incorporate music that would have informed the Dust Bowl mass migration and would complement the lyricism of Steinbeck’s novel. Sonny weaves in excerpts and snippets from both Woody Guthrie and gospel tunes, twenty-two of them at last count. “Guthrie was the most popular and lasting writer of that era, creating songs that expressed the frustrations and bolstered the spirits of the downtrodden folks on that terrible journey. Gospel tunes fit best for that portion of the show set in Oklahoma. They offer the spiritual support underscoring the beginning of the journey and tie directly into Steinbeck’s book and the pivotal character of the lost preacher. Harry gave me the freedom to just start playing, with the plan to keep me acoustic at all times. I started incorporating bits and pieces of tunes as underscore to help move the story along.” Director Parker liked the “feel” of the improvised underscoring, so Sonny has essentially composed/ developed a score for the entire show, at different times playing a 6-string guitar, 5-string banjo or a 6-string banjo, upright bass, mandolin, saw, harmonica, dulcimer, dobro and a tiny little player piano, which represents Ma Joad’s treasured, discarded music box. As the actors have developed their characters, Sonny found certain tunes to represent them or their moods. Some characters even have musical themes and threads that follow them throughout the play. Sonny immersed himself into a dynamic development process. “Sometimes I hold back, fade way down under the dialogue or a pensive moment. Music ceases altogether at moments of great emotional impact. Other times I play louder, driving the scene and encouraging its energy. It feels like I’m scoring a film.” Director Harry Parker feels that Sonny’s improvisational underscoring approach to dialogue, character and action add range and depth to the production. “He helps us reinforce Steinbeck’s theme that even in face of deprivation, death and loss, hope can still flourish.” Both artists emphasize that there are even moments of celebration and community in the production. “I step into the midst of the migrants during the square dance number at the California campsite. A number of the characters join in, accompanying the dance, picking up various instruments around the campfire, as they must have done hundreds of times, organically, during the migration. It’s a moment of such joy and spiritual uplift, so important to express as part of the arduous journey they undertook.” Sonny Franks grows thoughtful. “Woody Guthrie’s music inspires hope for a better day to come. We have tried to honor that in this production without distracting from the sobriety and hardship of the Dust Bowl experience. Woody’s tunes “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” and “Ramblin’ Around” really speak to me during rehearsal. I hope they affect the audience as powerfully.”
On Tuesday September 30, City Rep’s partner in this production, Oklahoma Historical Society, hosts a concert to honor the novel’s anniversary, called “Music of the Dust Bowl”. Headlining the concert is beloved regional blues singer/songwriter Dr. Harold Aldridge, professor emeritus at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, a 2014 inductee into the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame. According to Carl Farinelli, musician and professor, who screens a video of Aldridge in performance for his American Song as Literature class, Aldridge is topnotch with both the music and history of the era. “He knows, and takes you back to the roots of the blues from work hollers. He takes you down a historical blues road, and very few people know that road the way Harold does.” The concert, free to all OHS members, will also feature Monica Taylor performing southern gospel from the 1930’s and 1940’s, such as Oklahoman Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away.” The Shelby Eicher Band will add another delightful musical element to the evening, performing the hits of legendary Bob Wills, heard on Oklahoma radio broadcasts during that era. In between music sets, actors Ben Corbett, Ruth Charnay and Nathan Goodrich from the CityRep/OCU stage production will perform short excerpts from the play and novel. Both the play production and September 30th concert commemorate the National Steinbeck Center’s 75th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The Oklahoma Historical Society presents MUSIC of the DUSTBOWL, Tuesday September 30 at 6:30pm, as its annual member appreciation event. OHS members attend for FREE. At the Oklahoma History Center. TICKETS: 405-522-5202, firstname.lastname@example.org
Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre presents the Tony award-winning adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, September 26 through October 5 at the Burg Theatre on the campus of Oklahoma City University. TICKETS: 405-228- 5227; http://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-grapes-of-wrath-september-26-28-october-3-5-presented-by-theatreocu-tickets-12143546675?aff=eorg
TITLE PHOTO by Jennifer Tiffany: Sonny Franks, Michael Corolla, David Coffee and Pam Dougherty (seated), Cameron Cobb (seated in front)