Set in early 1920s Charleston on the fictional Catfish Row and Kiawah (Kittiwah) Island, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has deep local roots. What many people don’t know is that the 1950s production was cancelled at Dock Street Theatre due to segregation issues. However, in 1970, the show, produced through the Tricentennial Commission and Charleston Symphony Orchestra, ran for 16 performances. Several members of the 1970 production were in the audience on opening night (I happened to sit behind the former “Bess,” Dr. Annette McKenzie Anderson, and “Sportin’ Life,” Mr. Claude Eugene Pinson). It’s the first time the opera has been performed at the Dock Street.
In the play, Porgy, a crippled man, attempts to rescue the woman he loves, Bess, from the violent Crown, and from drug dealer Sportin’ Life. Porgy’s love for Bess shines through in the darkest moments of her addiction and crippling fear. The cast performs the original, unedited script, so be warned: it’s pretty long.
Musical director Richard Show did a fine job of streamlining the prodigious opera. The cast is composed of talented musicians with rich voices. But keep in mind that it is an opera, (“folk opera,” but still), not a musical — so be prepared for the high soprano voice, and it’s mostly all sung. There are very few lines of plain-spoken dialogue.
Costumes are modest, but appropriate. In the opening, we see women colorful, bright loose dresses and men in beige pants, white shirts, and suspenders. For the picnic scene, the women wear white dresses and hats. Bess is always in red (or at least has on a red headband), a nod to her scandalous rep.
The set is authentic and structurally sound, depicting ramshackle surroundings: gray, ratty shambles of a slum with rickety clothesline, missing spindles on decrepit staircases, mismatched wooden chairs and windowpanes, peeling paint, and patched plaster with bricks peeking through. Lighting is dim and hazy, mirroring the dreary circumstances of poverty. Shadowed flashes of light and yellow-orange floodlights indicate a hurricane at the end of the play.
There were a couple of scene-changing glitches when the scrim wasn’t closed before the men changed sets. The biggest problem, though, was that the music drowned out much of the singing, so it was difficult to know what was happening plot-wise. On top of that, since it’s sung operatically, the words are not always clear. The actors’ beautiful voices are, at times, wasted on the audience who could rarely understand them. The orchestra is wonderful, but needs to play a bit more softly. It’s useful to know something about the plot, as there’s no synopsis in the program itself.
Since it was a relatively small cast, many members doubled (or tripled) up. Props to the gifted John Smalls (Robbins, Frazier, Crab Man), who is sparkling and witty — always a pleasure to watch. Brandon Allen (Porgy) stole the show in what was a challenging role, playing a very believable “cripple.” His deep baritone voice, smooth and mellow, was strong throughout, and he was one of the easiest to understand. He was also funny, evoking laughter from the audience with his “I’m a gonna buy you a divorce” line. His performance never flagged, and his loving devotion to Bess felt real. Chemistry between Michal S. Johnson (Bess) and Allen is good. The audience can feel their affection, and there are a couple of gorgeous duets with the two. Johnson has a nice voice, but again, the words needed more enunciation.
Kyle Taylor (Crown) was great as a cocksure, tough guy (think Gaston from Beauty and the Beast). Husain Williams (Sportin’ Life) is a smooth and believable drug-pusher; he has real presence and a phenomenal voice. Monique Y. Waters (Maria) is a convincing, no-nonsense shrew. The ensemble (as local townspeople) brought much energy in the cheerful, familial, comfortable home-life scenes, especially in the churchy gospel bits at funerals and prayer meetings.
In the first scene, Porgy calls himself a “crap-shooting idiot,” highlighting the play’s theme of the randomness of life — of its fragmentary and fleeting nature. What remains until the end, though, is love that struggles and believes. Though the play’s subject matter is heavy (poverty, racism, murder, domestic violence), it is also a poignant commentary on outcasts on the fringe of society — those with disabilities and addictions — and values the lives of those overlooked by society. Porgy and Bess demonstrates joy in the midst of dire circumstances and the possibility of love that seeks to redeem.