Bess … Vanessa Stewart, etc.
Also with: Cornelius White, Marenda Perry, Elizabeth Graham, Roberta Laws, Bridgette Louise Cooper, Gail Blache-Gill, Marjorie Wharton, Marvin Lowe, Gordon Easley, Leon Browne, Valerie Hamm, Sabrina Carten, Danrell Williams, Ozie Jamison, Jerrod Sanders, Casey L. McClellan, Johnnie Jackson, Julianna Kelley, Rita Madero, Louisa Sebron.
One of the most pleasant surprises — and, at $ 30 top, best values — on the touring circuit is this long-running Charleston, S.C., production of the Gershwins'”Porgy and Bess.” Produced by Living Arts Inc. president Peter Klein in a way that makes low-priced tickets possible, it’s been on the road periodically since December 1992 throughout the U.S. and Canada.
(The latest leg of its tour was scheduled to end with three performances in Albuquerque, N.M., the week following its New Haven weekend. In June it will play nine performances in Israel in the outdoor Caesarea Roman Amphitheater. And in the fall it will resume its U.S. touring, including return engagements.)
The cast (which rotates all of the major roles) is made up largely of performers with experience in other “Porgy and Bess” productions, and vocally the production is hearteningly strong, led at New Haven’s two matinees by William Marshall’s exceptional Porgy. The possessor of a deep, rich, pure baritone and incomparably clear diction, Marshall is also a big, powerful man — thereby making plausible the scene in which Porgy kills Crown (played with daring physicality by Stephen Finch).
Marshall’s singing and charisma are major reasons why the production’s ending is so genuinely moving. It’s not surprising to learn that after he’s shared the role of Porgy with Brian Gibson in Israel, Marshall will take over the role of Joe in Hal Prince’s smash-hit Toronto revival of “Show Boat.”
At the performance seen, Bess was played by Vanessa Stewart, a tall, striking woman. Stewart, who first appears in scarlet velvet, lives up to that vivid dress. She has a lustrous, if sometimes slightly unfocused, dramatic soprano voice, which she uses with an all-out recklessness that’s entirely apt for the role. And she and Marshall sing and interact passionately.
As good as they are, they’d be even better if the production as a whole had more forceful and imaginative direction. The skeletal Catfish Row setting, switched to other locales by the use of changing backdrops and a sail-like drape , is perfectly acceptable. So are the costumes from the Virginia Opera’s 1992 production.
Also bringing rich operatic voices to the production are Angela R. Simpson’s large-scale Serena and Iris Fairfax’s lyrical Clara. John Lesane’s Sportin’ Life is more sung than acted, the pluses and minuses of this straight approach coming out about even. The full cast’s choral singing is particularly impressive, and the miking leaves the voices sounding blessedly natural.
The reduced, 17-member orchestra is well prepared by David Stahl and conducted by Richard Cordova, though the sound isn’t always ideally full. And as is often the case with “Porgy and Bess,” this production cuts some music and characters, though it still runs nearly three hours, with one intermission. Given the vocal and dramatic demands of the opera, this attractively priced touring production is a small miracle.