‘PORGY AND BESS,’ now on stage at The Beck Center, has a fascinating history. In 1926 George Gershwin read ‘PORGY’ by DuBose Heyward. He wrote the author suggesting that they collaborate on a folk opera basedon the novel. Heyward was enthusiastic, but it
wasn’t until almost a decade later that Ira Gershwin joined Heyward to write the script which had been germinating in his brother George's imagination.
Termed an operetta, it was assumed that it would be staged in an opera hall; however, Gershwin chose to have it performed in a traditional Broadway theatre. The Alvin Theatre production lasted only 124 performances, losing much of its backers’ investments.
Following the Broadway showing, though the script was not produced much in this country, many of the songs achieved popularity through recordings, and the musical was performed extensively in Europe where it was considered a true American opera. It wasn’t until 1970, when the Houston Grand Opera performed an uncut version of the script that the show received itsdeserved US attention. There is a local connectionto the show’s history. In 1976 Lorin Mazel and the Cleveland Orchestra made the first complete recording of the score.
The story is set in Charleston, South Carolina, at the turn of the century, in a small black enclave called Catfish Row. It tells about Porgy, a crippled beggar who falls in love with Bess, a woman of uncertain reputation who is under the domination of the villainous Crown. Crown kills a Catfish Row inhabitant during a craps game and flees. When he returns for Bess he is killed in a fight with Porgy. Porgy goes to jail, and Bess is enticed to New York by Sportin'
Life, a scheming gambler. At the show's end, Porgy, who has been released from jail, heads to New York in search of “his” Bess.
The show’s score includes such songs as “Bess, You Is My Woman,” “I Loves You Porgy,” “I Want My Bess,” and “Lawd, I’m On My Way.”
Now generally classified as a folk opera--a folk tale in which people would naturally sing folk music--the show receives few productions due to its difficult casting, singing and acting requirements. It is this challenge which has been undertaken by Scott Spence, Beck’s Artistic Director, the cast and the technical crew.
Having seen a dress rehearsal, I can only do some supposition of what will happen as the cast settles into their roles and gets comfortable with the material.
From what I perceived, it’s worth seeing the show if, for no other reason, to be enthralled by the singing and acting of William Clarence Marshall as Porgy. He has a powerful and emotion-laden voice. He interprets songs effectively, which is so important in this operatic format. His acting is completely believable. Wow!
Also strong are Shellie Wyatt, whose rendition of “Summertime” opened the show on a positive note. Her reprise of that song was one of the show’s emotional highlights. Brian Keith Johnson is properly snarly as Crown. He has strong vocal abilities. His “Red-Headed Woman” was well rendered. Karen Clark-Green (Serena) interpreted warmly the emotional “My Man’s Gone Now.” The chorus generally sings well.
Unfortunately, though she has a fine singing voice, Dione Parker Bennett, did not have the physical attributes or the acting skills to effectively develop the role of Bess. It was difficult to believe that she was the sultry and beauteous woman that men would
fight over. Devon Settles was also hard to accept as Sportin’ Life. He needed to be more snake-like. His version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” failed to develop the proper under belly meaning of the song. He didn’t move or dance in a manner that fit the role.
Trad Burns lighting, especially during the storm scene, was impressive. At times, Stuart Raleigh’s overly enthusiastic orchestra drowned out the vocalists. This is very problematic in a show that requires the audience to hear the words of the songs.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘PORGY AND BESS’ is an awesome undertaking. Beck Center should be praised for bringing this important American theatre classic to the stage. When the cast settles into their roles, it should result in a very positive experience. As is, it’s worth attending just to see and hear the wondrous William Clarence Marshall.