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Slumbertime
By James Yeara

Porgy and Bess

Libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heywood, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heywood, music by George Gershwin, directed by Will Roberson, musical direction by Zoltan Papp

Living Arts, Inc., the Egg, Feb. 16

Porgy and Bess stands out amid the elitism and effetism that surrounds opera. Set in the poor black fishing society of the Gullahs in South Carolina during the 1930s, the tale of the crippled Porgy and his love for the drug-addicted beauty Bess has, from its initial performance, been a crowd-pleasing hit that moves as it entertains. Finding the nobility of humanity amid the reality of poverty and racism, Porgy and Bess is a unique opera, true Americana to its core. This is an opera to see.

With George Gershwin’s most serious music, created to display his talents so that he would be seen as more than just a popular composer, Porgy and Bess incorporates into its rollicking tale of gamblers, drunks, fishermen, drug dealers, peddlers and pious believers some of the greatest music and songs of the 20th century. Opening with “Summertime”—its cadences like the breeze of a June twilight—Porgy and Bess features such familiar songs as “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and the soulful “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” This is music that never failed to thrill or move in previous touring productions at Proctor’s and the Palace.

Unfortunately, aside from Gershwin’s music, the most salient and memorable aspect of Living Arts Inc.’s touring production, which played to the two-thirds-filled Hart Theatre at the Egg on Saturday, was the curious juxtaposition of an all-white 15-piece orchestra and conductor and a 99-percent white audience trying to hear snippets of songs from an undermiked and overwhelmed African-American cast. That the 31st annual conference of the New York State Association of Black & Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus filled the convention center outside the theater added to the strange separation at the Egg. That the production was somehow connected to Black History Month added to the ironic juxtapositioning. Porgy and Bess is a great work of art, not a holiday ornament to be displayed then forgotten.

The wooden set—the skeletal frame of buildings with wooden ramps connecting to platforms upstage against a droopy cyclorama of a painted stormy sky—often was far more animated than many of the actors, and the set never changed regardless of time or place. Opera is also spectacle, and Porgy and Bess is spectacular: Two murders, a rape and a hurricane should be as memorable and moving as Gershwin’s music. Living Arts’ staging wasn’t, with its box-step or first-wedding-dance choreography. Randomly selecting any three rows of the audience would have produced better dancers. The costuming was credited in the program to a 1992 Virginia Opera Association production of Porgy and Bess, but rather than a poor, isolated 1930s South Carolina fishing village, the pastel ties, floral-print dresses and khaki pants evoked a Blue Light Special or Target Presidents’ Day sale.

Though the cast bios list numerous international and national credits, they produced a lesser sound than Porgy and Bess deserves, even with the production double cast with rotating leads for each performance. Aside from Stephen B. Finch’s menacing Crown, who brought an Isaac Hayes bass and swagger to the role of Bess’ alcoholic lover—making very clear who put the top on their B&D relationship—the cast’s singing was as nondescript and flat as the scenery of Charleston’s Catfish Row. Overall, only the sleeping was easy at the Egg on Saturday.

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