PORGY AND BESS: A Masterpiece for the Gershwins' and the Skylight
A rare theatrical experience occurred at the Skylight Music Theatre this weekend when after nine years Artistic Director Bill Theisen said good-bye at his last production. The preeminent evening reigned as one pinnacle in the Skylight’s distinguished history because the Gershwins’ masterpiece Porgy and Bess premiered as one of the company’s incomparable performances.
The remarkable 1935 musical The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess was revolutionary in featuring an all African American cast and revering the uniquely American blues, jazz and spirituals that came alive thought South Carolina’s Gullah culture, circa 1920’s. George and Ira Gershwin originally discovered a novel written by DuBose Heyward, and then collaborated with his wife Dorothy, to write the opera based on this true-life character of a recluse who was born with physical defects in a Southern tenement, Catfish Row.
This character became Porgy, who sings “I Got Plenty of Nothing” in his tiny coastal village, except his gal, his song and his Lord. When a man is killed by a controlling, strung out Crown over a crap game dispute, Porgy invites Crown’s wayward girlfriend Bess, hooked on happy dust, into his home. The unlikely couple, “the beautiful” Bess and “unwhole man" Porgy discover their fulfilling, unique love allows them acceptance andcomfort in this depressed yet spirit filled neighborhood.
A tremendous cast mesmerizes the audience, transfixed to what is being sung on stage every moment. When Clara (Cecilia Davis) opens the performance singing “Summertime” from atop a balcony, the audience’s spine tingles at this memorable beginning. Then Clara serenely walks down the circular staircase to the stage where Scenic Designer Ken Goldstein’s imaginative backdrop comprised of dilapidated overlapping doorways and shutters frames the performance, to let the characters and story shine. Listening to Jason McKinney’s Porgy or Kearstin Piper Brown’s Bess, especially in their emotional duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Love You, Porgy,” lights the Gershwin’s music with a burning fire of American rhythms.
America’s soul lies in these melodies, plucked from George Gershwin working all summer on an island off America’s Southeastern coast. Where he captured a previously unheralded ethnicity and their several music genres for opera, giving them an uncensored platform with reverence for their musical heritage. The songs rise from the lives of a culture suffering and struggling for survival, even against nature.
The Skylight’s compelling production resonated partially because Theisen and Musical Director Richard Carseydownsized the musical for the Cabot Theatre. Including reducing the number of live musicians to a bare eight or nine, a miraculous feat alone. This intimate setting allows the audience to experience Catfish Row as if they were bystanders on the street. While the musical’s Bess is double cast, and Rhea Olivaccé alternates with Brown, well known Milwaukeean Sheri Williams Parnell also served as Assistant Director. She has several standout scenes playing Maria as does Adrienne Danrich's Serena and Anthony P. McClaun's Sporting Life.
And while Porgy And Bess was penned in the 1930’s, the clothing and names could be changed so this then groundbreaking story of drugs (now perhaps meth instead of happy dust), poverty, violence and the lure of the good life to the marginal cultures might be mined in many contemporary, especially Milwaukee, neighborhoods. In the past year or two, near 32nd and Lloyd, eight fatal shootings included a grocer murdered for $64.00 in his cash register, similar to the murder in the Gershwin’s story after a crap game.
This is why the Gershwins’ opera transcends a singular culture, a particular neighborhood, and when seen, has the power to make all humanity whole again, similar to when Porgy rises from his cart and walks away to search for Bess at the finale. When McKinney’s grand stature appears to fill the entire stage as he walks off, the dignity to his physical limitatiions and music fills one's spirit with perseverance. The Gullah community’s hearts are similar to many cultures in this world, singing out for comfort, compassion and companionship, to ease the difficulties of everyday life, the pain of loss and sorrow. The Gershwiins’ Porgy and Bess is indeed also a Skylight masterpiece, the beloved music and story essential for every generation.
The Skylight Music Theatre presents The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Complex through June 9. Season subscriptions are also available for their upcoming 2013-2014 seasonthemed “Revolution.” For information or tickets please call: 414.291.7800 or click the Skylight link to the left. by Peggy Sue Dunigan