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SPA revives 'Keep the Faith' musical

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Cast members of "Keep the Faith" hold street signs of neighborhoods affected by the 1997 flood during a rehearsal this week. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
Cast members of the Red River High School production of "Keep the Faith" rehearse "In the Big, Big, Flood" for this weekend's revival of the 1997 musical. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

It's hearing the sirens again that takes Connie Sherwood right back to that April day 20 years ago, when the Red River rose up and took Grand Forks.

Sherwood is directing "Keep the Faith," a revival of the musical that was mounted in the summer of 1997 to tell the story of the flood.

Sirens can be heard blaring in the revived multimedia show that captures the sights, sounds and feelings of people before, during and after the natural disaster.

Performances are at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday in Red River High School's Performance Hall.

As Sherwood works with students, they notice her reaction to the sounds and the photos and video shown on screens that flank the stage, she said.

"I can't describe what it makes you feel like—watching the hospitals clearing out patients, watching people in wheelchairs being wheeled out to who knows where. Twenty years later, it affects you the very same way."

With a cast of 60, the show is shorter than the original, running about 75 minutes, without intermission.

"It was a matter of choosing what wasn't going to be worth explaining," Sherwood said.

For students, who weren't born when the flood occurred, it's a bit hard to grasp some realities of 1997, such as the unreliability and limited availability of cellphones.

As they enact songs such as "Holy Hannah" — named for Blizzard Hannah, the last of eight blizzards that crippled the region — or sing lyrics such as "Joan Kroc Angel Fund: I got mine, you got none," the students learn more about that time in the Grand Cities' history.

"It's such fun to teach," Sherwood said. "We feel like old, wise people passing along stories to the young. That's what cultures do."

"Keep the Faith" draws from KCNN radio scripts—people calling in with questions, information, requests for help and offers to provide help—and historic film footage from WDAZ-TV.

'Seeing their own lives'

In July 1997, SPA, which stands for Summer Performing Arts, scheduled three nights of "Keep the Faith" performances in the Chester Fritz Auditorium.

"We had no idea anyone would even come," Sherwood recalled. But "we added nights, and then again and again (to meet demand). It was overwhelming."

The show, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, holds the record number of sold-out performances at 10.

"We had to do it again in the fall and the spring," she said. "It did not go away."

"Keep the Faith" was well-received by residents "because it's their story," Sherwood said. "And the film footage is so fabulous. People are seeing their own lives."

The flood is "part of our history as a community; it's such a part of us, such a reminder of the grace of the people as a community. People came from, literally, all over to help us clean out. There was an incredible outpouring (of help). You're humbled by that."

It's important to look back on the Flood of 1997 and its impact on the community, she said.

"Let's not repeat it, but let's not forget it."

If you go

• What: "Keep the Faith" musical production commemorating 20th anniversary of the flood.

• Who: 2017 SPA (Summer Performing Arts) Company.

• When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: Red River High School Performance Hall, 2211 17th Ave. S., Grand Forks.

• Tickets: $10, all seats (reserved); go to and click on the "tickets" link.