The song everybody knows goes “Summertime … and the livin’ is easy.” (And if you don’t know the song, you’re missing one of the loveliest, most haunting — and, not coincidentally, most recorded — melodies in musical history.)
But the livin’ is far from easy in the musical where “Summertime” serves as opening number, recurring theme and poignant dream — as we discover in the beautifully sung, vibrantly performed “Porgy and Bess,” which continues through Sunday at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall.
Though Broadway runs through its bloodlines — and those of its composer, George Gershwin — “Porgy and Bess” is no tap-happy, feel-good frolic. It was conceived as a “folk opera” — and it’s at least as much opera as musical, if you care about labels.
For anyone who cares about great music, however, “Porgy and Bess” (with lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Gershwin’s brother Ira) remains an imperishable treasure — and this touring version of the Tony-winning Broadway production demonstrates why.
Although purists may bristle at the musical and dramatic liberties taken with the original, this “Porgy and Bess” achieves its primary goal: to make the opera more accessible to contemporary audiences. At least those contemporary audiences willing to suffer along with the denizens of 1930s Catfish Row.
Despite the racism and poverty they face, they’re a resilient lot, able to find a glimmer or two amid the bleak surroundings, whether it’s young Clara (Sumayya Ali) and Jake (David Hughey) crooning “Summertime” to their newborn baby or the gentle Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), a disabled beggar who’s able to accept that “I Got Plenty of Nothing” — and that “God made me to be lonely.”
But maybe not. Not when Porgy has the chance to provide sanctuary for the bruised Bess (little-girl-lost Alicia Hall Moran), shunned by the respectable ladies of Catfish Row as “liquor-guzzling slut,” who needs another man to take care of her when her longtime lover, the criminal Crown (a menacing Alvin Crawford), goes on the lam.
Crown warns that any man Bess takes up with will be “temporary,” and that he’ll be back for her. But neither he, nor Bess, reckons on the genuine happiness she’ll discover with Porgy, along with a way of life that doesn’t include the temptations of Crown — or the “happy dust” peddled by the sly Sporting Life (a nimble, scat-singing Kingsley Leggs).
Director Diane Paulus and her collaborators — Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the book, and Diedre L. Murray, who adapted the score — have made changes (some subtle, some not) to emphasize the universality and humanity of the archetypal characters. Porgy, for example, no longer gets around on a cart pulled by a goat; in this production, he’s on his feet, albeit with a limp and a cane, and considerably more dignity as a result.
Not that he needs more, thanks to the nobility and goodness Stampley radiates, making it entirely understandable how, and why, Bess would gravitate to him. After all, she’s disabled, too — emotionally, if not physically.
And the bond between these two lost souls who somehow find each other gives “Porgy and Bess” an emotional power amplified by Stampley and Moran’s soaring vocals on such rapturous duets as “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”
But the musical riches extend beyond the title characters, encompassing everything from the aforementioned “Summertime” to Sporting Life’s jazzy “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the sassy put-downs of matriarch Mariah (Danielle Lee Greaves) and even the “Street Cries” of Catfish Row vendors peddling strawberries, crabs and honey.
Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind bathes Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalist set in rich, glowing tones, echoing the promise of “Summertime’s” easy living for those who have no reason to expect it, yet believe in it just the same.
Once you see “Porgy and Bess,” you’ll understand why.
Contact reporter Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.