It was not encouraging to walk into the Belk Theater on Friday and see about 20 musicians in the orchestra pit warming up for "Porgy and Bess." I'd heard that tried with the beloved Gershwin opera in the past - by a scrawny touring company that went around - and it didn't work.
So there was an unwelcome déjà vu about seeing another touring company going the same route. It still didn't work. The little group spent most of the performance in a background role. For the most part, it left a hole where the power, warmth and sparkle of Gershwin's orchestra should've been. There were microphones at work in the pit, but they were hardly able to help.
But what happened on stage Friday night had so much life that it almost made up for what was absent in the pit. Gershwin's tale of a man-magnet who falls for the unlikeliest of lovers - a crippled beggar - still set loose its romance and drama.
Kevin Short's voluminous voice gave his Porgy a heroic stature - especially when, after returning from jail to learn that Bess had abandoned him, he undauntedly set off to find her as the curtain fell. With a voice that exuded such confidence, how could anyone doubt him?
Even though the proper Christian women of Catfish Row call Bess a slut, Donita Volkwijn avoided playing her that way. There was a freshness in her voice - maybe even a hint of innocence - that signaled goodness in her heart. Even when Bess gave in to temptation, Volkwijn played it like weakness, not like she was eager for a wild life.
As her No. 1 source of temptation, the dope-pushing Sportin' Life, Reggie Whitehead was a trumpet-toned, high-stepping bundle of cynical energy.
As Bess' former boyfriend - Crown, who doesn't want to let go - Phillip Boykin's booming, snarling voice and oak-tree build made him a threatening presence from his first scene. When he scoffed at God during the hurricane, Boykin cut loose with the wildness of someone who doesn't care about judgment, human or eternal.
Playing Maria, who tells off Sportin' Life in one of the opera's sure-fire numbers, Gwendolyn Brown was gutsiness personified. Reyna Carguill cut loose fervently with the lament Serena sings at her husband's funeral.
But some of the singers in smaller roles didn't have nearly that kind of power. Without microphones, they might hardly have been audible. But there were mikes, so they registered.
Actually, those roles did more than register. Director Charles Randolph-Wright staged everything with so much care that each person onstage had personality and spirit.
As a result, this "Porgy" amounted to more than the sum of its parts.
Porgy and Bess
Opera Carolina hosts a touring production.
When: 2 and 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-372-1000; www.operacarolina.org.
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