Skylight's timeless "Porgy and Bess" a grand exit for director Theisen
"Summertime … and the livin' is easy."
It's one of the most – if not the most – iconic opening lines in the history of American opera. Even relative philistines to the world of opera know the legendary song. But even after almost 80 years of existence and a claim to being one of the most covered songs in history (a New York Times blog by Joe Nocera last year puts the number of covers at more than 25,000; others put it over 33,000), when Clara – played by Cecilia Davis – lovingly serenades her baby with the soulful lullaby in the Skylight's season-ender "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," it's still worthy of goose bumps.
The rest of "Porgy and Bess," running through June 9, luckily plays much the same way. Times have changed mightily since the opera first took the stage in 1935 (though large, all-black productions are still rare in the arts, both stage and screen), but as staged and performed by the Skylight's remarkable cast and crew, the original production's sweaty South Carolina grit and gorgeous moments of massive, raw emotion seem well in tact with rarely any trace of cobwebs.
The opera's story is a classic romantic melodrama of two wounded people finding each other and the heartbreak and hope that follows. Porgy (Jason McKinney) is the crippled town beggar; Bess (Kearstin Piper Brown, splitting shows with Rhea Olivaccé) is the town floozy, addicted to drugs, liquor and bad men. After murdering one of his fellow Catfish Row residents over a game of craps, her obsessive, abusive lover Crown (Nathaniel Stampley) runs off and abandons the pariah Bess, with only the kind-hearted, understanding Porgy willing to give her shelter.
The two form a sweet romantic bond, though the nagging menace of Crown's potential return and the routine visits from the brassy local dope dealer Sporting Life (Anthony P. McGlaun) constantly threaten to drag Bess back to her old life.
"Porgy and Bess" marks the last show for the theatre's artistic director Bill Theisen, who is departing for the University of Iowa after nine years at the Skylight's helm. As such, he's bowing out in grand style, an impressive feat considering the show was compressed (the original's four-hour length has been slimmed down in "The Gershwins Porgy and Bess" to about two and a half hours) and then compressed one more time considering the limited space and tools at the Skylight's disposal.
Not that you notice this during the show. The orchestration, knocked down from a 30 piece score to nine by music director Richard Carsey, still sounds vibrant, beautiful and, in the case of some of the opera's stomp-filled songs, vigorously alive. The staging is also impressive, namely the mesmerizing patchwork of interlocked grey, withering doors that plays the part of Catfish Row. At first, I worried about losing the feel for the famed location with such a closed off, stylized setting. But when the show started and the many residents of Catfish Row filtered onto the intimate stage, it felt like swampy South Carolina.
Then there's the Gershwins' lusciously harmonious, character-rich music, which with the cast has a field day. McKinney's turn (his Milwaukee debut) as the big-hearted Porgy comes with the requisite booming, soul-rattingly deep voice, but it's also wonderfully expressive, especially his warm, hard-earned – and eventually short-lived – smile. Brown is his equal, especially during her emotionally conflicted reunion with Stampley's Crown, who's every bit like the metaphorical hurricane bearing down on Catfish Row: intimidating, forceful and, for Bess, destructively alluring.
The showstopper of the evening, however, belongs to Adrienne Danrich, who plays the wife of Crown's early victim. Her mournful soprano voice on "My Man's Gone Now" cuts through the theatre and to the heart like a blaze of fire through ice.
McGlaun is entertaining as the mockingly amused cynic Sporting Life. There are no faults to be found in his voice, and he has fun with the famously showy role. However, there is a bold, jazzy swagger that's lacking that could have given his songs the pop they cry out for. It's not absent, just subdued, set at 8 when the show and story are at 11.
I'll admit to finding "Porgy and Bess," even in its shortened form, a bit dragging at times (the four-hour original, though significantly longer, might have a better, more propulsive storytelling flow). Even so, it's hard not to get swept up by the opera's enrapturing swells of enormous emotion. 80 years later, the show still brings the heat like the sun in summertime. And the enjoyment is easy.
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