Lawrence Toppman

Charleston goes wild over everything about ‘Porgy and Bess’

Jonathan Green’s set design transforms Catfish Row into a Gullah village in Spoleto Festival USA’s “Porgy and Bess.”
Jonathan Green’s set design transforms Catfish Row into a Gullah village in Spoleto Festival USA’s “Porgy and Bess.” ©Julia Lynn

When the curtain comes up on “Porgy and Bess,” the most impressive large-scale opera in my 33 visits to Spoleto Festival U.S.A., we see a scrim resembling wrought-iron gates all over the city. It rises like an invitation: Step into our world, into the most famous myth associated with Charleston.

This production, virtually sold out through the run of the 40th festival, is the talk of a city that has temporarily gone “Porgy”-mad.

The festival offers two-hour “Porgy and Bess” walking tours, also a hot ticket, tied to the opera’s history. “Porgy Houses” have been identified around the city as sites important to African-American history, even if they have nothing to do with the show, and painted with motifs from Jonathan Green’s set design for the opera.

The Charleston Library Society, Charleston Museum and College of Charleston Libraries have sponsored related displays or events. And Gibbes Museum of Art, which opened last weekend after a two-year renovation, has mounted “Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess,” an exhibit of drawings and paintings related to the opera since it opened in 1935. (You’ll find composer George Gershwin’s canvases there.)

The city has had a thorny relationship with the opera set on its now-extinct Catfish Row – which, in reality, was named Cabbage Row and ran off Church Street, south of Queen. A proposed production during the segregated 1950s never happened. A 1970 version with local performers did the city credit but made no splash beyond it.

“Porgy and Bess” had to wait 40 years for Spoleto to give it the attention it deserved. (Well, almost all the attention: The festival chose not to use supertitles, so anyone who doesn’t know DuBose Heyward’s libretto will frequently be lost.) Small sections have been cut, notably Porgy’s “Buzzard Song,” and one of the two intermissions has been dropped to shorten your stay in Gaillard Center. What’s left flies by over more than three hours, giving pleasure in every scene.

The terrific Lester Lynch sets the tone as Porgy with excellent diction, jovial humor and a sense of deep pathos that belongs to the crippled beggar called “a piece of a man” by Sportin’ Life (cheerfully sleazy Victor Ryan Robertson, a fine Almaviva in Opera Carolina’s “Barber of Seville” seven years ago).

There’s no weak link in the cast, from Alyson Cambridge’s poignant Bess and Eric Greene’s malevolently sexy Crown down to street criers selling honey, strawberries and deviled crabs. The Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir, which makes up half the chorus, sing and act with beauty and conviction.

Director David Herskovits and painter Green, who designed both set and costumes, can claim a large share of the triumph. They let the region’s Gullah influences creep into the show slowly, until those take over at last in a riot of color that gives Catfish Row a sense of unity.

That setting begins as an enclave tucked away from white Charleston, invaded occasionally by authorities who usually mean no good to the black residents. History’s inescapable here: Even Archdale, the genial chap who helps Peter the Honey Man get out of jail on an unfair charge, explains himself to Porgy by saying, “His folks used to belong to my fam’ly.”

Yet over the course of time, the clothes and buildings become transformed. Only Sportin’ Life and Crown, both of whom finally leave the community, and the completely assimilated Christian Serena remain untouched by Sea Island elements. By the end, when Porgy settles in a wheelchair with feathers and cloth decorations, he has the unforced dignity of an African king climbing onto his throne.

Such ideas probably never occurred to Heyward, who used the story of local beggar Sammy Smalls as the basis for his 1925 novel “Porgy.” Heyward’s life comes up frequently on that worthwhile walking tour, which turns out to be a two-hour look at almost 350 years of Charleston’s history. (Soon after the city incorporated in 1670, slaves arrived. They made up the majority of the population by 1708.)

The guide leads you slowly around the bottom of the Charleston Peninsula, explaining the interaction among Heyward, wife Dorothy (who turned his novel into a play in 1927, writing with her husband) and George Gershwin, who came to Folly Beach seven years later to study black residents and hear their music.

Yet you also learn about the Rev. Daniel Joseph Jenkins, who was born into slavery but created an orphanage in 1891. He started bands three years later, hoping tubercular students might improve their health by playing instruments. Some folks think Jenkins Band cornettist Gus Aitken created the “wah-wah” brass flutter that became the distinctive sound of the Duke Ellington orchestra.

One of those Jenkins bands even played in the pit for the 1927 Broadway run of “Porgy,” where Gershwin may have heard it. That’s the kind of stuff you’ll learn if you let yourself be Porgified at Spoleto this spring.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

“Porgy and Bess”

The opera runs through June 12 at Gaillard Center. Tickets can be obtained only by phone at this point: (843) 579-3100.