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Passion of 'Porgy & Bess' guided director Diane Paulus

From Broadway to all points USA, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., has been making waves during Diane Paulus' tenure as artistic director.

These are heady times for the company and Ms. Paulus. She took the reins of the company in 2009 and as a director has won a Tony for directing "Pippin" after nominations for "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess" and "Hair," all sent to Broadway and onto national tours from ART. The professional theater of Ms. Paulus' alma mater, Harvard, also originated the acclaimed production of "The Glass Menagerie" and has launched the national tour of "The Gershwin's Porgy & Bess," which arrives in Pittsburgh Tuesday.

‘The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess’
Where: Benedum Center as part of the PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh series.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. next Sunday.
Tickets: $20 to $68; 412-456-6666;

There's no big secret to choosing projects that connect with today's audiences, the director said.

"All the shows I've done, whether it's 'Hair' or 'Porgy & Bess' or 'Pippin,' they're all about putting a spotlight on ensembles and actors and telling powerful, emotional visceral stories. Certainly with 'Porgy & Bess' that's the heart of what caught me about that show," she said by phone from New York.

"Making theater is like making a gift for the audience -- building the best present you can make and delivering it to your audience," she added. "It's always so thrilling when you feel that connection is made."

"Porgy & Bess" had its origins in 1927 as "Porgy" by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and was transformed into "an American folk opera in three acts" in 1935, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The unlikely love story of a disabled man and a party girl is set amid the African-American denizens of a fictional South Carolina town in the 1920s. A storm is coming, and it's not just the weather that goes from steamy to stormy.

George Gershwin's mix of European opera traditions with American jazz and folk tunes was a revelation in its day, with a song lineup that includes "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Got Plenty of Nothing."

That's a tall order to take on, and in the case of this latest revival of "Porgy & Bess," not everyone was onboard.

Stephen Sondheim wrote in The New York Times of his dismay that Ms. Paulus intended to rework the story with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. That storm eventually passed, and the Broadway production was voted best musical revival and earned a fifth Tony for Audra McDonald as Bess.

"It's often the case with revivals that writers are brought on board to look at the books. John Guare came on board [for the 1999 revival of] 'Kiss Me Kate,' " Ms. Paulus noted. "What I learned was how passionate people are about 'Porgy & Bess' and as a theater person, I'm always interested in any situation where people are passionate; that's what we dream of, that people will care deeply. What makes me sad about the whole experience is that Stephen Sondheim never saw the production."

More from Ms. Paulus on taking "Porgy & Bess" on the road, and what's coming next:

Question: When you choose a work for ART, are you also thinking about how it might play on Broadway or on tour?

Answer: Our mission [at ART] is to expand the boundaries of theater through exploring great classics and new works of tomorrow, so that's what we're focused on. When the opportunity arises to continue the work, that's such an incredible experience for everyone involved, primarily because you get to keep working on it. Making theater is hard, and it takes time and it takes layers of attention. It's like spending years on a painting. When they excavate paintings and they see the original drawing that was underneath? That's what it's like.

With this national tour, I was so moved by what I learned about the social-cultural history of 'Porgy & Bess' in the 20th century, and so much of that had to do with when it traveled around America, what it was in Europe and behind the Iron Curtain, as a diplomatic export by the federal government. So much of the production history of 'Porgy & Bess' is about its life and how it changed over the course of the 20th century around the world.

I'm very excited about this tour because ... this is an American masterpiece that belongs in every community across America.

How involved are you in the tour?

I was 100 percent in, on the casting, the rehearsal process, launching the tour in San Francisco. At the end of every performance, within minutes, a report gets sent out about exactly what happened, and I read them. I'm always waiting, knowing what city the show is in and what the time difference is. You get everything ... and then you weigh in.

The Broadway show had two powerhouse performances by Philip Boykin and Audra McDonald. How tough was it to fill those shoes?

The really terrific thing is the tour has so many people who were in it from the first reading at the first workshop, and that includes Alicia Hall Moran and Nate Stampley, and now they are Porgy and Bess. They played those roles on Broadway a lot, and what was so sublime about the tour is I got a chance to go back and tailor the performances for them.

It is big shoes to fill, and they are incredible and it's so much about their chemistry, which is palpable. It's two individual portraits of these two most unlikely people who would fall in love: 'the liquor-guzzling slut,' in quotes I say, as she's described, and 'the cripple.' These two love without labels. And those two performers, not only do they have the vocal chops to sing that score, but they are very profound actors bringing so much depth to their roles.

And then we have Kingsley Leggs [seen in Pittsburgh on the "Sister Act" tour] as our Sporting Life -- I've been wanting to work with him for years so it was a treat when he came in for this. Someone asked me how hard it was to cast this production, and because it had so much acclaim and people got to see it on Broadway, the African-American community of actors came out in droves for the tour wanting to be part of this. It's such a spectacular cast.

[Pittsburgh CAPA grad David Hughey steps off Broadway and onto the tour as Jake, a Catfish Row fisherman. Other Pittsburghers in the cast are Dan Barnhill and Adrianna M. Cleveland.]

This production is kind of minimalist in terms of scenery.

The way the production is designed and crafted ... it's about the virtuosic performances and the emotional depth. That's what grabs the audience across the footlights. To me, 'Porgy & Bess' rattles the rafters because it is high-stakes drama -- love, death, natural disaster, hurricane devastating a community. And the music is there that can envelope an audience in a big hall. Plus, we made a commitment to have a big orchestra ... more than 20 musicians [a core that travels with the show, then local musicians hired at each stop] because we wanted that majesty of the music with the tour.

Can there be a tour of "Pippin," which was a great Broadway success with Carnegie Mellon's Patina Miller? It has all of those circus elements.

It's complicated, but it's kind of like the traveling circus. It's like pitching a tent and then everything happens within that tent, so it's a great show for touring. We can't wait for that. And by the way, 'Witness Uganda' just opened at ART. [It is a new musical written by and starring] Griffin Matthews, who is also a Carnegie Mellon grad, so your Carnegie Mellon posse is kind of taking over the theater -- so many talented people.

What's it like shepherding the place where you got your start in theater?

I went to Harvard thinking I was going to be a lawyer or the mayor of New York. I was really on a different track. Then guess what I did? I wound up seeing shows at ART and ushering and second-act crashing and seeing Robert Wilson and JoAnne Akalaitis and Bob Brustein and Cherry Jones, and it changed my life. ... So when I agreed to throw my hat in the ring and finally come to ART and run the theater, I was so excited about reaching college kids.

In my own way, I hope I can do more for the next generation when it comes to theater, just by impacting young people, whether they go on to be doctors or lawyers. I know from experience what that transformative experience can mean in their lives.

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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