Porgy and Bess a homecoming success
Congratulations to the Footlight Players, which, against all odds, filled the historic Dock Street Theatre’s stage with 12 stunningly accurate, gorgeous performances of “Porgy and Bess.”
Much of this success should be attributed to director Henry Clay Middleton, who, as a Charleston native, caught every local nuance, giving the production a soulfulness that was missing from the Broadway production I recently saw.
The 1935 folk opera, now also a musical based upon Dubose Heyward’s book, “Porgy,” has twice been performed in Gaillard Auditorium: once, in 1970, using a director from New Zealand and a cast featuring numerous non-Lowcountry residents, and again in 1993, when the Charleston Symphony Orchestra staged one performance, starring singers from New York and Europe,.
However, Footlight’s production was an unprecedented historic event, marking the first time that actors, all unpaid amateurs and Charleston area residents, performed what has been called “America’s greatest opera.”
Unlike the Broadway staging, with cast members wearing body microphones, the Footlight Players’ 28-member cast had to depend on their own vocal prowess to be heard, as only three microphones were placed inside the stage floor.
Yet, the strong voices of the super-talented Brandon Allen as Porgy, and of Michal S. Johnson as Bess, resonated with an impact that reached to the back of the theater.
True, it was difficult to hear some of the voices in Act I, yet in the opening number, “Summertime,” Monica Heyward’s remarkable voice soared, in her role as Clara singing to her newborn. Also, sparks flew as Husain Williams, as Sportin’ Life, danced a soft-shoe and lustily sang, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” In the second act, the voices could all be readily heard.
Uncannily convincing was Kyle Taylor as the cruel killer, Crown, and Sabrina M. McClair-Martin, whose spine-chilling delivery of “My Man’s Gone Now,” made you believe she truly felt unimaginable grief. The entire cast contributed to the aura of the lives of the denizens of 1920s Charleston. Enough praise cannot be given to the first-class, professional, 12-piece orchestra conducted by Richard Show.
Technical director Richard Heffner’s set designs, depicting the shabby homes of Catfish Row painted in blue and pink pastels, as was the custom then, contrasted with the inaccurate shades of brown used in the New York set.
Also, designer Erica Rowley’s costumes appropriately blossomed with bright colors, unlike the drab dresses of the Broadway version.
If only DuBose Heyward, his playwright wife Dorothy, composer George Gershwin, and lyricist Ira Gershwin, along with longtime Footlight Players director, Emmett Robinson, could have witnessed their dream come true.
Indeed, Porgy has truly come home.
Arts columnist of The Charleston Mercury
Fiddlers Marsh Drive