George and Ira Gershwin’s original “Porgy and Bess” was an opera, in the grandest sense. However, in the midst of the Great Depression, it opened on Broadway in 1935, billed as a “folk opera” — a cross between popular entertainment and high art — so as not to chase away cash-conscious musical theater patrons.
Though the current touring production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” includes changes that render it a truly accessible Broadway musical, the score still requires the vocal agility of opera singers.
The tour opened last week at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and continues there through June 29.
Actor David Hughey likes the changes to the Gershwin classic.
Hughey plays Jake, one of the first characters you meet in the show. Jake’s wife Clara is a young mother who sings “Summertime” to their baby. Jake joins her, and they sing a duet.
In the opera, however, Jake doesn’t get to sing “Summertime,” Hughey said.
“It’s really a treat for me to play Jake,” he said. “The song is the most recorded in history, so it’s nice to be able to add my voice to that iconic collection.”
A little more history about “Porgy and Bess” is warranted:
George Gershwin, with his lyricist brother, Ira, based their opera on a book and play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward about a tight-knit black community in Charleston, South Carolina.
Instead of a short run in an opera house, “Porgy and Bess” and Gershwin’s hand-picked, all-black vocal cast played weeks on Broadway. It was controversial art in its time.
The first actors to play Porgy and Bess refused to participate in a tour performance at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., until the theater agreed to allow whites and blacks to sit together in an integrated audience.
“Porgy and Bess” has seen many Broadway revivals over the decades.
A few years ago, however, director Diane Paulus, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre Murray re-imagined the piece and came up with “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”
Parts of the libretto were changed to dialogue, and that dialogue was adapted to better reflect the idioms of Charleston. Some songs are now sung in different keys.
“Singing opera eight performances a week isn’t sustainable,” Hughey said. “And in the original, the characters didn’t dance. Time was taken up with dancers moving onstage. Now everyone dances.”
Plenty of people have criticized the new version, but the actors love it, he said.
Hughey and his counterpart Sumayya Ali, who plays Clara, have opera and Broadway experience, as do many of leading characters. Along with those by Hughey and Ali, especially noteworthy are performances by Danielle Lee Greaves as Mariah and Densha Ballew as Serena, two of the older and wiser women of Catfish Row.
Alicia Hall Moran, who understudied the role on Broadway, plays Bess. Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy also was part of the original Broadway cast. Alvin Crawford plays the stevedore Crown and Kingsley Leggs takes on the role of the gambling man, Sporting Life.
The star of the show, of course, is the score by George Gershwin, in his iconic style that includes the blues, jazz, African rhythms, French impressionism, German opera — all played well by the 5th Avenue’s orchestra.
Many of the songs are sunny, including the well-known “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nothing” and “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down.”
The story of Porgy and Bess, though, is ultimately a tragic one.
Living on the edge of Charleston Bay, the folks get by selling or trading what they can fish, farm and gather. Porgy is crippled, Bess is trying to leave behind her reputation as a cocaine-using “hussy,” a man is killed by a drunk, a hurricane takes the lives of a young couple and the police detective is a racist bully.
The love between Porgy and Bess — evident in the songs “Bess, You is my Woman Now,” “I Loves You, Porgy” — provides the hope, all the way to the end.
Hughey said the cast plans to enjoy its time in the Seattle region, which he describes as one of the best musical theater communities in the country.
“It’s first-class,” he said.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; email@example.com.
“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”
The national tour of the Broadway sensation and winner of a 2012 Tony award, plays through June 29 at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle. Tickets (starting at $39.25) are available at www.5thavenue.org, by phone at 206-625-1900.