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Opening up "Porgy and Bess"

Denisha Ballew as Serena, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.
Denisha Ballew as Serena, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.
Michael J. Lutch

The Broadway tour of "Porgy and Bess" is coming to The 5th Avenue Theatre this week and if you don't know the deal with this show, here's the short(ish) version. It was written in the 1930s by a Jewish guy named George Gershwin. You mighta hoid of 'im. Gershwin decided to write a "folk opera" for African Americans, basing it off a book entitled "Porgy" by DuBose Heyward chronicling daily life on the fictitious Catfish Row.

Let's for a moment appreciate that this was a pretty outrageous thing to pull off at that time in history.

"Porgy and Bess" is now widely considered to be not only an important piece of American theatre history, but an important work in both the operatic and musical theatre canon. And, heck, American history in general. In 1936, the National Theatre in Washington D.C. integrated its audience for the first time at the demand of the cast who refused to perform for a segregated theatre. Cool stuff.

[Edited for clarification] Fast forward. The Gershwin Estate approached Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus and asked if she'd put together a revival of "Porgy and Bess" as a sort of companion piece to the original work. So in 2011, Paulus, along with Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the book, and Obie Award winner Diedre Murray, who adapted the music, condensed the story from a four hour grand opera to a two and a half hour production that leaned more musical theatre. Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim famously blasted the project for various reasons and critics were torn, some loving it, some not so much.

The Broadway production was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning Best Revival. It is still the longest-running Broadway production of "Porgy and Bess" in history.

"This is another interpretation of the piece," says Denisha Ballew, who plays Serena in the touring production coming to The 5th Avenue this week. "There are 26 of us [in the cast]. Everyone is playing a very crucial role. You are getting the gloriousness of the music and you’re able to really follow the story. Really see moments of vulnerability and the breakdown with Bess. To see the complexity of Serena and Crown. Audiences won't go away saying that this was stripped down opera. This show is just more intimate."

So basically this new version is for musical theatre lovers who may not want to sit through a four hour long opera. Paulus, Parks, and Murray claim they never meant to replace the opera version, but make it more accessible. "It's opening it up," explains Ballew.

That being said, seeing the full opera might inspire some kid to go get a masters degree in music or something.

"'Porgy and Bess' was the first opera I had ever seen," says Ballew. "I was a sophomore in high school. I think that’s when I realized that opera was something that I wanted to pursue."

See what I did there?

Ballew completed her masters at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she studied with soprano Marjorie Bennett Stephens. After graduating, the award-winning lyric soprano sang with the Nashville Opera and Knoxville Symphony, where she performed the role of Bess in a concert version of "Porgy and Bess." She has also professionally performed pieces from Candide, Manon, La Traviata, and The Magic Flute.

"You have to be open minded! When you think about it, opera is ever-evolving. They are trying to make things slightly more modern to draw in a different audience." The actress's serious classical chops are put to good use in her role as Serena, who sings the gut-wrenching aria "My Man's Gone Now" after her husband is killed.

Now, in case you hadn't heard, the 1930s wasn't such a great time for cultural literacy and political correctness, and even though "Porgy and Bess" was a breakthrough triumph for its day, it's not without its issues. There are some actors who are a little wary of the show because it contains racial stereotypes -- this concern is also what kept many companies, opera and otherwise, from producing it in the 1960s and early 1970s.

"I feel this piece is bigger than that," says Ballew. "You have to remember that Gershwin wrote this piece to give African Americans a chance to perform music that was from their own stories. Although he was not African American, he studied the culture, he drew his information from that. Instead of looking at it as showing racism, because racism did exist and still exists, I think that this piece trumps all of that."

The music, which incorporates European operatics with American jazz and folk music and includes famous songs "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "I Loves You, Porgy," and "Bess, You is My Woman Now," is just as difficult as it is glorious and memorable.

"Eric Owens is a famous bass who has performed at the Met doing Wagner and Verdi and Puccini," says Ballew. "He performed Porgy with San Francisco Opera in 2009 and he said it was just as difficult as singing anything else. This music is definitely written for a trained singer."

"Porgy and Bess" wasn't considered a legitimate opera until the mid-1970s when the Houston Grand Opera produced the show to great acclaim. The production would receive a Tony Award, the only opera company to claim this honor.

"We actually got to meet Simon Estes [who played Porgy in the Met's first production of the opera in 1985] and he spoke about how it was breaking into the operatic scene being African American, especially in his time. He just had to focus on the music and focus on the art of it all and forget about everything else. And that gave him the ability to go on. Yes, I’m African American and, yes, I’m capable of singing this European music. We don’t have to be slaves to racism. I think this production is an opportunity that will only catapult people’s career in a positive way."

Beyond the transformative nature of the opera and its place in history, touring with this show, even in its revival form, has been a transformative experience for the actors as well.

"Being on this tour has been incredible," says Ballew. "We just came from LA where we were all just blown away from all the support we received from so many people coming backstage to tell us how much they loved the show. That makes what we do worthwhile, to know that we’ve touched somebody. That’s why we do it. We do it to touch lives, to encourage someone in some way, to lift someone up."

And because I'm nosy and obnoxious, I made Ballew name drop. Some of the celebrities that met the touring cast backstage included Ben Vereen, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Williams, Loretta Devine, Jack Nicholson, Lynn Whitfield, David Alan Grier, and Jenifer Lewis, who also invited the cast to her home for a Memorial Day BBQ. (Squeeeee!)

Ballew is enjoying the ride and while she still has many operatic roles she's dying to try on, she's also exploring musical theatre's possibilities and is open to what the future may hold for her.

"I love that Norm Lewis is the first African American Phantom on Broadway. I would love to be a trailblazer. I think musical theatre has the ability to be really open and try new things."

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"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess"
The 5th Avenue Theatre
June 11-29
Tickets (starting at $39.25) online www.5thavenue.org