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Breaking the Barriers

Skylight presents ‘Porgy and Bess’

May. 13, 2013
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The 1935 New York premiere of Porgy and Bess was an epochal event in American musical theater. With music by George Gershwin and a libretto developed by brother Ira Gershwin from DuBose Heyward’s novel and stage play, an all-black cast broke the color barrier, setting a precedent for the rise of African Americans in the performing arts. Like Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and other great Russian work that inspired Gershwin, Porgy and Bess was a folk opera drawing from the everyday music of a certain class of people—in this case, the Gullahs of South Carolina who, because of their isolation, maintained much of their African roots. Porgy and Bess might have been a historical footnote if not for the unforgettable melodies of “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and the bold production that introduced this musical story to the world.

“It’s just considered America’s most important opera,” says the Skylight Music Theatre’s Bill Theisen, “and in its 54-year history, the Skylight has never done it. Staging Porgy and Bess was my goal from the moment I came on as artistic director.”

And it will be his grand finale. Stepping aside from Skylight after Porgy and Bess concludes the company’s season, Theisen will take up his new position as director of opera at the University of Iowa. A gregarious man, Theisen’s passion for musical theater can barely be contained within the cramped clutter of his office in the Broadway Theatre Center, which houses the Skylight’s gorgeous Cabot Theatre. “We’re doing the chamber opera—not the Broadway show version,” he continues. “We want to be true to what Gershwin wrote.”

Casting African Americans for the production is less challenging than in the early 20th century. In the original, pre-Gershwin 1927 Porgy stage play, director Rouben Mamoulian, an artist determined to expand the boundary of popular taste, combed the vaudeville houses and cabarets of Harlem and even approached prospects on the streets. By the time Mamoulian returned to direct the premiere of Gershwin’s folk opera, African Americans with operatic training were available but barriers had to be surmounted. Al Jolson hoped to play Porgy in black face and the Metropolitan Opera, which barred African Americans, was unavailable. “The producers wanted to produce Porgy and Bess with white actors in black face,” Theisen says. “Gershwin and his collaborators fought hard to keep their integrity.”

Perhaps the novelty of an African-American opera filled New York’s Alvin Theatre on opening night, but the emotionally moving music and the human drama of the lyrical story kept audiences coming back—decade after decade. “I can’t imagine what would have happened if Gershwin, Heyward and Mamoulian had caved in,” Theisen says. “My guess is that Porgy and Bess would have flopped—or had a short life before going into oblivion.”

For its production of Porgy and Bess, the Skylight put the word out in Milwaukee, even tapping a local expert on Gullah culture, Ella Washington, as a consultant. “We cast at least five people locally, which in the world of opera is a very positive thing,” Theisen says. Also, two graduates of White Fish Bay High School who went on to successful careers responded to the national casting call, Jason McKinney (playing Porgy) and Nathaniel Stampley (as his rival, Crown). Also starring are Anthony P. McGlaun as the devious drug dealer Sporting Life and Adrienne Danrich as Serena. The demanding role of Bess is double cast with Kearstin Piper Brown and Rhea Olivacce.

“Many of the cast members have done Porgy and Bess before and know it intimately,” Theisen adds. “They bring a wealth of experience into the room.” Skylight veteran Richard Carsey will conduct from the arrangements of the Madison Opera’s John DeMain, who conducted the historic, unabridged performance of Porgy and Bess at the Houston Grand Opera. Before its 1935 New York debut, Mamoulian and Gershwin trimmed the four-hour Porgy and Bess to a more manageable length—the familiar version that is the basis for the Skylight production.

“The goal is to tell the story—the most exciting aspects are the characters and their journey as individuals as well as their participation in the life of Catfish Row,” Theisen says, referring to the Gullah community of Charleston, S.C., where Porgy and Bess is set.

After the curtain falls on the production’s final night, Theisen will prepare to leave for his new position. “What I always loved about the Skylight was the eclectic mix of repertoire,” he concludes. “We are unique in the U.S. for regularly programming operas, operettas, musicals and musical revues—in one season! There is no other company like it in the country.”

Skylight Music Theatre performs Porgy and Bess, May 17-June 9, at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or go to tickets.broadwaytheatrecenter.com.

David Luhrssen’s most recent book is Rouben Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen. He is a contributor to the forthcoming edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.


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