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The University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s University Concert & Lecture Series presented the 75th Anniversary National Touring Production of Porgy and Bess in Aycock Auditorium, which was built in 1927, and predates even the first performance of Porgy and Bess by eight years. This historic setting made viewing famous American folk opera, with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, and book by Heyward, based on his 1925 novel Porgy, even more enjoyable. It was like viewing a piece of history.
With its backdrop of a changing cloudscape, its set of a decaying waterfront slum dripping with Spanish moss, and its actors dressed in muted earth tones, Porgy and Bess looked for all the world like a Thomas Hart Benton painting brought to life.
The opening number, “Summertime,” brought chills on an early spring afternoon. Clara’s lullaby to her newborn baby, a piece that is one of the most familiar of all Gershwin’s music, was perfectly suited to Sequina DuBose’s voice and was the perfect appetizer to this full-course opera. Setting the stage for an opera tour de force such as Porgy and Bess is no small feat; but DuBose, a recent grad of the Manhattan School of Music, made it seem as easy as falling off a fishing boat.
Clara’s song is prelude to the opening scene, a craps game in which the male characters participate in this symbol of the fickle hand of fate. Indeed, the axe — rather, cotton hook — falls on one of the craps players; and the vicious personality of the murderer Crown, a very convincing Phillip Boykin, is revealed. Boykin, a native of Greenville, SC, is perhaps the most powerful character in this production, and has an impressive bass-baritone to match. He’s scary and bold, and eventually the audience sends up a collective groan whenever he appears.
The plot begins to unfold as Crown goes into hiding from the law and his woman Bess (Donita Volkwijn), addicted to Sportin’ Life’s (Reggie Whitehead) “happy dust,” decides to clean up her life. With nowhere to go, she moves in with Porgy (Leonard Rowe), the crippled but good-hearted beggar, and eventually falls in love with him.
Rowe, a North Carolina School of the Arts grad, plays Porgy as a strong man who happens to be crippled. It’s a different take on what could be, and has been in previous incarnations, a pathetic character. Instead, through his muscular baritone and a physique to match, he’s very believable as a man with whom our Bess could fall in love.
Volkwijn’s Bess is the golden thread that runs throughout this opera, and the mezzo-soprano’s voice is thoroughly capable of carrying the narrative with its many ups and downs. This story about love, life, death, faith, addiction, and abuse requires a multi-colored voice to express the emotions that wrack the little town of Catfish Row. But the supporting solos thrill as well, particularly the widowed Serena’s (Reyna Carguill) lament, “My Man’s Gone Now,” and audience favorite Maria’s (Stephanie Beadle) lusty contralto.
It’s Sportin’ Life who seems to be practically the only character who has anything to smile about, for smiles are few and far between in this village where another tragedy is always just around the corner. Whitehead’s slick dance moves as Sportin’ Life conjure up images of the late Sammy Davis Jr., who played the role in the 1959 film.
When a hurricane hits this beleaguered village, there’s more harmonic wailing and spiritual questioning; and to top it off, here comes Crown, all too willing to spit on the Bible and cause some quaking of his own. The calm after the storm isn’t really that calm, even though the antagonist gets his due.
The cast as chorus in this production is, at times, like listening to an extremely fine-tuned gospel choir, even more inspiring because gospel as a genre wasn’t widely recognized when Gershwin wrote the music for this play. It’s kind of a past-is-prologue kind of thing.
Porgy and Bess has endured so much controversy — at one time it was practically banished from American theater as racist — so, to see this beautiful production in all its glory is thrilling. Add those enduring songs — “Summertime” (17,500 different versions recorded), “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” — and you have a wonderful opera experience with an amazing orchestra conducted by Pacien Mazzagotti, who got a well-deserved ovation for his skills.