When the Broadway national touring company of Gershwins' Porgy and Bess opened last night at ASU Gammage, it brought plenty of American hardship, nostalgia and history with it. To accompany a stunning performance, actor Nathaniel Stampley, who plays leading man Porgy, visited with Examiner before the show.
Drug addiction, domestic violence, racial conflict and so many other of our current challenges loom largely on the Porgy & Bess stage. As scathing today as the issues were in 1935 when the show opened as an opera in Boston, or last year when Audra McDonald received a Tony for her portrayal of Bess in this jaw-dropping, tightened musical theatre version that was re-imagined by director Diane Paulus at the Gershwin estates' request, they shine with haunting relevance.
"For me, it's humbling to be part of a legacy like this," said Stampley, whose creation of the famed, crippled beggar Porgy is following in the hobbling footsteps of big names like Sidney Portier (1959). "But I have to tell you, the incredible duets alone are worth the price of admission."
The Gammage stage broadcast well his and Porgy's humility, while the near flawless production showcasing those duets was like an offering. Songs like 'Summertime,' covered by more than 30,000 recording artists over the years, and 'You Is My Woman Now' resonated so much more deeply as part of the fabric of these desperate, lonely characters' lives. Whereas the timeless Gershwin music is hummed by millions, many are unaware of the sad story that birthed them.
Though sadness often prevails in the tale, standout numbers kept the crowd fully engaged. Porgy's opening 'I've Got Plenty of Nothin' and drug-dealing Sporting Life's (Kingley Leggs) 'It Ain't Necessarily So' were especially rousing ear-cheers of happiness and fun.
Part of the Paulus magic that New York has delivered to Gammage, in addition to the perfect, operatic vocal qualities that so often strip down to shimmering raw blues and gospel, is the evocative, simple set and lighting. The coppery golds and greens that bathed the men's quartet in 'Leavin' for the Promised Land' became part of the heavenward blend.
Stampley, too, noted the remarkably moving vocals that emote from the classical powerhouses onstage when he described his favorite moment in the show. "As the cast mourns a loss, downstage looking out, I'm surrounded by cast-mates singing very simple acapella music. It's genuine, sublime choral music, and I weep mightily when I hear it."
The pristine sphere of sound that Stampley and co-star Alicia Hall Moran (Bess) developed within the measures of 'I Loves You Porgy' was certainly the evening's crowning moment. As complexities of melody and counter-melody resounded from pit to Bess to Porgy and back again, the pair immersed Gammage in their bubble of fiercely loyal love to captivating effect. So much so, that the final scene was hard for the audience to fathom.
"People become very protective of Porgy, almost defensive about his love," commented Stampley. "I'm always surprised, though I don't want to spoil the ending, at displays of the audience's pessimism or optimism in that final scene."
On opening night at Gammage the crowd's final reaction, whether in defense or dismay of Porgy's starkly-framed, final resolve, culminated in an immediate standing ovation that lasted a full three minutes. The show runs through Sunday on ASU's campus in the beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright performance hall, an added bonus to the 'everything' this iconic show serves.