Romance and drugs make good mix

Marking its 75th anniversary, the one night performance of George Gershwin’s folk opera “Porgy and Bess” at the Municipal Auditorium was stunning visually as well as musically enchanting.

The opera, first performed in 1935 with a classically trained all black cast, was deemed controversial for its subject matter as well as the racist portrayal of African Americans. The story revolves around Porgy, a crippled man living in the slums, and his attempt to rescue his love Bess from the virile Crown and drug dealing Sportin’ Life.

Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and conducted by Samuel Bill, this timeless piece kept the audience melodiously engaged.

The first act is set during the 1930’s in the thick southern humidity of the fictional neighborhood called Catfish Row in Charleston, North Carolina. The neighborhood is loosely based off of Heyward’s experience living in Cabbage Row. Frantic horns, cymbals and violins blare introducing the piece then, quietness as the clarinet lingers. Sweeping violins mimic a tender lullaby as the soft notes of Gershwin’s famous song “Summertime” arise as the character of Clara (Sequina Dubose) enters singing to her infant.

Men are gathered around playing the game craps. Clara’s husband Jake (Eric McKeever) sings a song of his own called “A Woman is a Sometime Thing.” Then Porgy, (Leonard Rowe), comes in wanting to play the game. While the men are talking about women, in particular the scandalous Bess, the kindhearted Porgy defends her honor. The next scene begins with a haunting gospel-like number “Gone, Gone, Gone” during Robbins’ funeral. An impressive sorrowful solo emerges from Serena (Reyna Carguill) as she cries for her dead husband. 

Sportin’ Life (Reggie Whitehead), the colorfully clothed drug dealer, enters with a lively dance number as the vivacious Maria (Stephanie Beadle) chases him off her block. He tries to coax Bess with dope into running away with him to New York but she refuses and Porgy chases him away.

There is an endearing duet between Porgy and Bess “Bess, You is My Woman Now” while everyone gets ready for the church picnic at Kittiwah Island. Everyone leaves for the picnic except for Porgy.

A delightful uplifting dance number follows and Sportin’ Life releases the amusing number ” It Ain’t Necessarily So” about how the bible shouldn’t be taken so literally.
At the picnic Crown emerges from his hideout and confronts Bess about Porgy. He tells her he will come back to claim her and drags her off caveman style to the woods.

The second act begins back in Catfish Row. Bess has returned with a mysterious illness and tells Porgy she has to go back with Crown but also sweetly confesses, “I loves you, Porgy.” Everyone in the neighborhood gathers in Clara’s room and pray for their safety as the storm passes. Suddenly with a clap of thunder Crown emerges in looking for Bess. A fight breaks out and Porgy kills Crown in Bess’ honor.

Gershwin’s adaptation does not stray too far from the book. Which may be because after reading the book, Gershwin, along with his brother Ira, commissioned Hayward to write the libretto for the opera.