When Charlestonian DuBose Heyward wrote “Porgy and Bess” in 1925, he couldn’t have imagined its journey to a position of power in American theater.
The novel, based on his observations of life on Cabbage Row, a street of dilapidated houses inhabited by black workers, was critically acclaimed. Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, wrote a dramatic script of the novel, which ran on Broadway in 1927. Next, George and Ira Gershwin collaborated with DuBose to write an operatic score and lyrics of the musical, which debuted in Boston in 1935.
The newest rendition is a winning, unconventional operatic musical. The score travels from ballad to soaring gospel to heartbreaking opera. The characters are flawed. The plot does not follow a typical trajectory. Yet you will feel with, and root for, each of these characters in their honest struggles to live and love.
The Belk Theater is the last stop on its first national tour. The modernized adaptation is by Suzan-Lori Parks, a MacArthur Fellow, and the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
While the eponymous characters are central, the play resonates as an ensemble. Catfish Row is a neighborhood in the best sense.
Clara and Jake represent the wholesome married couple with child. Mariah is a saucy but motherly figure who provides a moral compass. Crown and Sporting Life are the bad boys, and Bess is the bad girl. Porgy is the town cripple (no political correctness in the 1930s). He has a good heart, but no one expects much of him, particularly in the arena of romance.
As is characteristic of a good community, everyone is known, both for their assets and their faults. The folks on Catfish Row feel free to criticize, condemn, praise and help one another, particularly when they are confronted with a common enemy, the white man. But race is not a main character; it is presented mostly as a reason for the black neighbors to protect each other, even when they don’t like each other.
The bad boys are deliciously bad. As Sporting Life on opening night Tuesday, Kingsley Leggs is dashing in his striped suit that should be prison stripes. He represents drugs and money, and is oh so charming. Alvin Crawford plays Crown, Bess’ Achilles heel. He is gorgeous and ruthless with a voice that soars and coerces and begs for more solos.
Bess is an enigma. Alicia Hall Moran’s mezzo-soprano will make you cry for sins you didn’t know you committed. Her speaking voice has an odd cadence, perhaps Gullah-influenced. She acts with her body, and her posture speaks volumes. She is Everywoman, in the sense that three different men believe she is what they need in a woman. Her penchant to satisfy all three tears her apart.
Though Porgy is surrounded by men of faultless musculature, when he flashes his effervescent smile, Nathaniel Stampley commands the stage. He makes “I Got Plenty of Nothing” a song about a whole lot of something. Likewise, Danielle Lee Greaves infuses Mariah with a sea full of sass as she takes down Sporting Life in “I Hates Your Strutting Style.”
The score is brilliant and dictates the tenor of each scene. The collective sorrow of “My Man’s Gone Now” segues seamlessly into acceptance of the faithful in “Leaving for the Promised Land.”
Parks’ revision opened on Broadway in 2012 and won Tony Awards for best Revival of a Musical, and Best Actress for Audra MacDonald as Bess (her fifth). It surprises, it delights, and it doesn’t gloss over disappointments – just like life.