Among the handful of artists who have left a permanent mark on 20th-century American music, George Gershwin stands apart. Capable of writing successfully in multiple idioms, he insisted on striving for something more than mere imitation. Gershwin longed to be an original, and before his untimely death from a brain tumor at age 38, he managed to create a legacy that includes, in addition to dozens of wonderful songs, two of the most significant compositions in American musical history: 1924’s Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess, a “folk opera” written for an all-African-American cast in 1935. Even if you have never seen a production of Porgy and Bess, you probably know the music, and you undoubtedly know at least one of its songs by heart, as “Summertime” has become one of the most popular standards in the American songbook.
This month, Ensemble Theatre Company presents Porgy and Bess in a 21st-century version designed for a cast of 14 and a five-piece jazz ensemble. Known as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, it was commissioned by the late composer’s estate in 2011, the second such attempt made to modernize the show and reduce both its original three-hour length and the expense of putting on a full production, which would require an orchestra of 40 instruments and a choir. Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks rendered the original opera’s recitative passages as acted scenes, modernizing some of the more problematic aspects of the work’s handling of race. Director Diane Paulus and musical consultant Diedre Murray also contributed to the transformation of Gershwin’s mighty (and mighty difficult) folk opera into something that more closely resembles musical theater.
Ensemble Artistic Director Jonathan Fox has assembled a formidable cast for this production, which has reportedly broken all previous New Vic records for advance sales. Karole Foreman, who will play Bess, previously appeared in two Ensemble productions, Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel and last season’s Sweeney Todd. Elijah Rock, who will play Porgy, is a newcomer to Ensemble but a veteran performer of songs by Gershwin and others. His album Gershwin for My Soul, produced by the show’s musical director Kevin Toney, will be released later this month.
Speaking with the two leads and the director, I was struck by how deeply felt their interest was in getting this story right on every level. Gershwin was drawn to the setting, Charleston’s Catfish Row, because it struck him as the perfect place in which to divine the true nature of the American soul. These people have almost no money and few material things, yet their culture is steeped in religious feeling. Foreman cites the two sides of Bess: one, her “feeling hopeless” due to her fallen status in society and her inability to escape addiction, and the other, through the love of Porgy, what Foreman terms “the possibility of Bess,” her aspiration to live with meaning and connection despite the fact she uses drugs to “cover the pain” of her existence as a kind of lost child.
For Rock, who will be making a radical transition from the role of madcap dancer Cab Calloway, which won him an Ovation Award in 2016, to the physically disabled yet emotionally strong Porgy, the challenge of the show involves the way that its “mixture of musical styles” requires a “merging of all the disciplines” of acting, movement, and song. Rock cites the close relationship he enjoys with musical director Toney as one of the key elements to achieving this, as the jazz band is in many ways as important to the production as any of the actors.
Ultimately, the excitement of this opportunity to get a fresh look at Gershwin’s greatest work stems from the degree to which these outstanding performers trust the material and the treatment. In stepping into the iconic roles, they are activating a tradition that extends through all those who have played them in the past, from the composer, and beyond, to his inspiration in the rich variety of African-American music.
4·1·1 Ensemble Theatre Company’s Porgy and Bess plays at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.) through February 26. Call (805) 965-5400 or see etcsb.org.