By Dottie Ashley
The power of the emotions that divide the human heart may never have been may more chillingly expressed than when Bess, female lead of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” entreats the crippled Porgy, whom she truly loves, to help her resist the rough sexuality of her pursuer Crown, a murderer and cocaine addict, as she sings, “I loves you Porgy/ Don’t let him take me/ don’t let him handle me with his hot hands/ If you can keep me/ now and forever,/you’ll be my man.”
Inspired by a real-life crippled black man, Sammy Smalls, who traveled about the city on a goat cart while living with other blacks in a downtown Charleston tenement called Catfish Row, DuBose Heyward, a native of the city, published the book “Porgy,” in 1925. Because of its critical acclaim, is was turned into a play by the author and his wife Dorothy Heyward. Following its success on Broadway, the play was then set to music by two New Yorkers, composer George Gershwin and lyricist Ira Gershwin as well as Heyward. Titled “Porgy and Bess,” the opera opened on Broadway in 1935.
Although performed throughout the world, “Porgy and Bess” was not to be staged in Charleston and allowed by the Gershwin Estate until 1970, because of segregation in South Carolina.
After having witnessed that South Carolina premiere of “Porgy and Bess,” performed in the “new” Gaillard Auditorium, and after (more recently) catching the 2012 Broadway production starring the four-time Tony Award winning-Audra McDonald as Bess, I can honestly say that the second act of the 2016 Spoleto Festival-sponsored production at the Martha and John M. Rivers Performance Hall in the renovated Gaillard Center, created one of the most powerfully emotional responses from an audience that I have seen in my more than 40 years of covering local, national and international theater.
Certainly much of the credit for this extraordinary version of “Porgy and Bess” should go to director David Herskovits, who urges us to “see with new eyes … the mystery of a community swirling around us every moment.”
However, following the first act, during intermission, numerous audience members complained that they could not understand a word of what was being said or sung on stage. Since no one seemed to have an answer, one popular suggestion was to have placed supertitles projected over the stage.
Fortunately, once Act II began, whatever sound glitch that had occurred had been mysteriously rectified, thus causing the rest of the evening to go smoothly.
Dominating the stage was the celebrated operatic baritone Lester Lynch as Porgy, who astonishingly switched from a non-confrontational cripple to a ruthless strangler of Crown, executed in such a convincing manner that several in the audience gasped, as if fearing his violence had, somehow, gotten out of hand.
Matching Lynch’s soul-shocking portrayal of Porgy was Alyson Cambridge as Bess, whose crystalline vocal prowess has graced opera stages throughout our own nation and mesmerized audiences in Berlin, London and Vienna. Cambridge lent both strength and vulnerability to the role of Bess, whose innate kindness is indirectly acknowledged when her grief-crazed friend Clara hands her infant over to Bess to care for and, as a hurricane rages, she dashes into the ocean, where she knows she will drown with Jake, her fisherman husband. Near the opera’s opening Courtney Johnson, as Clara, performs a flawless, soaring rendition of “Summertime” while cradling her new baby. However, later, when Bess is comforting the orphaned infant by singing the same famous lyrics “Your Daddy’s rich and your Mama’s good-looking,” the words become heartbreakingly ironic.
Seemingly larger than life, with a deep baritone to match his menacing persona, Eric Greene was ideally cast as the despicable Crown, who, when killed by Porgy elicited applause from the audience, a testimony to his remarkable ability as a singer and actor.
Responsible for concocting and contributing a welcomed tone of optimism to the production was the visual designer, Charleston’s own Jonathan Green. A nationally acclaimed artist, Green utilized bright colors, including a pop-art palm tree, to build a Catfish Row where, no matter what tragedy might occur, its residents would never allow their pure joy of daily life to ever fade.