Prodigal son rises

Kingfield church to stage ‘green’ rock opera

“My Green Eyes” will be performed February 24-26 at Judson Memorial Baptist Church, 4101 Harriet Ave. S. Shows are at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; Sunday’s performance is at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 at the door. Advance tickets are $10. Students and seniors get in for $8.

The story of the prodigal son has helped to shape Western culture. It’s been told by everyone from the Rolling Stones to William Shakespeare to repentant bluesman Reverend Robert Timothy Wilkins. Jesus Christ’s version has gotten the most press in this part of the world, though there’s a parallel Buddhist parable in the Lotus Sutra.

None of the aforementioned versions of the story of the wayward son, his wild ways and the loving reception his father gives him upon his return has been told in the form of rock opera, however. Linden Hills’ Randy Baker, and the congregation of his Kingfield church, are about to rectify that oversight.

They’re set to stage “My Green Eyes,” the rock opera Baker’s worked on for 10-plus years as part of his own personal journey and homecoming.

Star search

Baker’s personal voyage began after he graduated from the University of Minnesota 20 years ago. The then-clean-cut business major and his songwriting partner set out for California in search of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Like millions of others before and after them, they did not find it.

In the process, they formed a band – the Dominant Traits – in San Francisco.

“The DTs,” the now-ponytailed Baker said with a bit of a smile. He’s all too aware of the irony in that name: for years, he struggled with alcohol. Taking small bites from a grilled tuna sandwich at a Downtown eatery, and talking about his long-gone band and his about-to-bow opera, he sounded like a grown-up, fully redeemed version of the prodigal son.

The DTs sounded like Hootie and the Blowfish, Baker says. The problem with the group was timing: the DTs were making their acoustic-guitar-fueled rock in the 1980s, when the radio was jammed with bands such as The Cars, Culture Club, Def Leppard, Van Halen and Cinderella – a hodge-podge of rock styles and bad hair-dos, none of which included acoustic guitars.

“It didn’t go over well,” Baker said of the Hootie sound.

Some dreams never fully die, though.

“Maybe we gave up too soon,” he said. “We would go to folk clubs and do our thing, which wasn’t quite folk, and then we’d go to blues clubs and do our thing and it wasn’t quite blues. So maybe we were a little early or maybe we didn’t hang in there long enough.”

Maybe. Or maybe he just needed to turn his talents to penning a rock opera about “a story of love, sibling rivalry and organic farming,” as it says in the fliers distributed for “My Green Eyes.” Yes, organic farming.

In this version of the prodigal son story, the young man leaves the family farm run by his father and older brother. His mother gets cancer from what his father believes is overexposure to pesticides, prompting a turn toward natural agriculture. The prodigal son and the good son (the one who stayed behind to work the farm) then vie for the charms of an extension agent who comes to help with the conversion of the farm to organic agriculture.

If “My Green Eyes” were a photograph, its subject might look a lot like Randy Baker, though he says it isn’t meant to be autobiographical.

“I found that as I wrote this stuff that I was originally the prodigal son,” the 45-year-old Baker said. “But I’ve become the good brother in many ways, and the father. It’s just funny how your perspective changes as your life-stage changes.”

Like the protagonist in his opera, he chased elusive stardom; like that wayward son, he’s got dirt in his genes (Baker’s an enthusiastic organic gardener); and unfortunately enough, Baker’s mother, like the fictional mother in his play, has been stricken with cancer.

Baker’s mother lives in Florida and is receiving treatment there for metastasized breast cancer.

(Proceeds from the performances of “My Green Eyes” will go to breast cancer research at Abbott Northwestern’s Virginia Piper Cancer Institute.)

Two roads

Baker’s life certainly diverges from the life led by his prodigal son, however. Unlike his created character, Baker says he’s an alcoholic who drank to excess – eight to 10 drinks a night – for years, finally quitting in 2003 after his wife confronted him about the boozing.

“Shortly after that, I started into recovery. What I found was that as soon as I stopped drinking, I kind of lost my interest in music.

“I found myself not even humming or singing in the shower.”

His interest in music was rekindled by reading Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way,” about a year ago.

Soon after, he was asked by longtime friend Pam Joern about the state of “My Green Eyes.” She urged him, as she has repeatedly over the years, to finish it and get it up on a stage.

Baker was initially resistant, he remembers.

“But I thought, you know what, I’m not going to get behind this and try to push it. What I’m going to do is I’m going to be open to it. I’ll say, ‘OK, if the universe is going to help us, we’ll do it. If it’s going to be a bunch of troubles and hassles, then it wasn’t meant to be. If we can pull together a crew to do it, fine.’”

And so they did.

“Someone once told me that putting on a musical is like putting on a war. And I think a rock opera is ratcheting it up a few notches. It’s a tremendously ambitious undertaking; just getting it up there [on stage] is kind of a big feat,” Joern said.

She says the cast – assembled from the Judson Memorial Baptist Church congregation, word of mouth and by distributing fliers – includes a banker, teacher, bartender, stay-at-home parents and a house painter, all of whom have been rehearsing several times a week since October to stage “My Green Eyes” three times in February.

“People who have that performing bug love to do it,” she said. “It’s really kind of a monumental effort for people who all have other jobs. It’s a big deal to be doing this as a grassroots project.”

“My Green Eyes” is a family affair as well as a community effort. Baker’s three kids – Evan, 16 (running a spotlight), Beau, 12 (playing congas) and Hannah, 11 (selling cookies during intermission) – all are involved in the production, as is his wife, Sarah: She’s the choreographer.

She’s the one he really came home to after chasing the rock ‘n’ roll dream in San Francisco.

“She’s more the kind of person who does the right thing, where I was a little wilder,” he said with a wan smile. “It was all a long time ago, in case my kids read this.”