Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Twisted Apples: Stories from Winesburg, Ohio" at Nautilus Music-Theater

I first experienced Nautilus Music-Theater's lovely new piece of music-theater Twisted Apples: Stories from Winesburg, Ohio about five and a half years ago, when they presented one of the three acts at the 2011 Minnesota Fringe Festival. It was actually the first time I saw Nautilus' work, and I was immediately hooked. I saw another piece of the work at the 2012 Fringe Fest, and have been waiting for the full three-act work ever since. The wait is over! Nautilus specializes in developing new works of music-theater (a term that I've stolen because it can be used to describe anything on the spectrum of play with music/musical/opera without forcing it into a box). To that end, they hold classes and workshops for composers and playwrights, and present readings of new works roughly the second Monday and Tuesday of every month in their "Rough Cuts" series (watch their Facebook page for details, usually announced a week or two prior). Every once in a while they mount a full production of one of these new works in their tiny studio space in Lowertown St. Paul, and now, finally, it's Twisted Apples' turn to have its moment. But hopefully not its last; it's a gorgeous piece that I hope will live on and continue to be performed beyond this nine-show small space run that closes this weekend.

The three acts of this piece are independent but interrelated stories taken from Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio. In this adaptation, a writer opens and closes the trilogy, looking back on his youth in the Midwest small town and remembering the people who shared their stories with him. Small, simple stories of everyday life. This is very much what the opera is - stories of every day life, of people dealing with love, loss, longing, regret, hope, dreams. It's really more of a character study than a plot-driven piece, with complex characters beautifully drawn by Jim Payne's adaptation of the novel and Robert Elhai's gorgeous and evocative music, brought to vivid life by this talented cast.

The three acts (each just under an hour long) are:
  • Answered Prayers (2012 Fringe) centers on a teacher who left Winesburg to see the world and has since returned, and therefore is viewed as a bit strange by the townspeople who never left, and the pastor of the town church, who is fascinated by this strange woman to the point of thinking that he's found God in her. We also meet George Willard, a young writer whose job at the newspaper allows him the opportunity to know many of the townspeople.
  • Untold Lies (2010 Fringe) is a more light-hearted piece, reminiscent of Oklahoma, with an older and a younger farmhand trading stories and sharing advice, and a poignant ending as the older man contemplates the choices he's made.
  • Twisted Apples (2011 Fringe) brings back George from the first act and explores his home life at the hotel owned by his parents. His dying mother is full of regrets about the dreams she once had of being an actor and leading an exciting life, dreams she gave up when she married George's unimaginative father. She's determined to make sure her son lives the life she was never able to.
This is the third piece I've seen at Nautilus' Lowertown studio, and it's looked completely different each time. It's a small space but they know how to make it work for each show (see also Ordinary Days and The Fantasticks). Here, scenic and costume designer Victoria Petrovich has incorporated the space's immovable wooden posts into the design. Around one is built a small balcony that functions as the church tower in Answered Prayers, while the other frames the other end of the trapezoidal stage, beyond which is another raised platform for more scenes. Four or five rows on either side of the stage provide good sight-lines for all scenes, and stage director Ben Krywocz uses the space wisely. The four-piece orchestra sounds beautiful from behind one of the two murals of small town Ohio life (directed by Jill Dawe the night I saw the show, splitting duties with Jerry Rubino).

The best part of this small space is that there is no need for the performers to be miked, and it's a thrill to hear these full, rich, well-trained voices in such a small space. Several members of the beautiful five-person cast have been with the project since the beginning, and all bring something wonderful and unique to the piece. Norah Long and Gary Briggle are the highlights, both stunning vocalists who can also convey a range of emotions. Eric Morris is the wise old writer George Willard reminiscing about his past but not singing about it, which is fortunately remedied when he also plays a young man ready to make a choice about his life. As the young George appearing in two of the three pieces, Joshua Hinck hasn't aged since I first saw him years ago, and still has that youthful charm and openness. JP Fitzgibbons plays a couple of characters and is particularly impressive as a reverend having a crisis of faith.

Only four performances remain of Twisted Apples: Stories from Winesburg, Ohio. If you're a fan of new works of music-theater performed in small intimate settings, this is one you cannot miss. Best to buy your $25 tickets now before the small space fills up and the world of Winesburg retreats back into the sepia toned past.