From curtain up to the first beautiful notes of Sumayya Ali singing "Summertime," it's evident that "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" has been rebooted with an emphasis on musical virtuosity, with few bells and whistles as distractions.
Director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks have revived the classic folk opera of American theater, itself an adaptation by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward from the latter's novel and play, written with wife Dorothy. The story of the African-American denizens of Catfish Row, a Charleston, S.C., slum, has been reset and restaged, taking its marching orders mostly from the names that have been placed before the title.
The show came to Broadway on the heels of much controversy, particularly grumblings that there would be changes to the original ending. That idea was scrapped, and this "Porgy and Bess," original ending intact, landed as the Tony-winning musical revival of 2012, with Ms. Paulus as best director.
The audience was so taken with the performances during the national tour's opening night at the Benedum Center Tuesday, they booed the villains of the piece even as they applauded their talent. So invested were some in attendance, they cheered Bess when she seemed to make healthy decisions and gasped when she chose the destructive path.
The pair that give the play its title, the disabled beggar Porgy and boozy party girl Bess, are portrayed by Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran, who generate heat as the unlikely couple and soar on songs such as "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You, Porgy." Sultry Bess, addicted to drugs and danger, stirs men's passions wherever she goes. She longs to live a decent life with Porgy but feels the tug of her former beau, Crown.
Menace emanates from Crown, the towering, wild-eyed Alvin Crawford, whose barrel-chested strength is in stark contrast to Porgy, crippled from birth with a twisted leg. Bess tells Porgy she loves him and begs, "Don't let him take me, don't let him handle me and drive me mad."
A couple to root for without pause are young parents Jake and Clara, played with warmth and strength by Pittsburgh native David Hughey and Ms Ali. Fisherman Jake believes with hard work, he can help his son go to college, but he's also part of a testosterone-fueled culture where men are judged by their muscle, and gambling and drinking are expected among peers. He leads the ensemble in the only half-joking "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing."
The strength of the community comes from women such as Clara and in particular matriarch Danielle Lee Greaves as Mariah and Denisha Ballew as Serena. Early on, a drunken Crown commits murder, and the wailing soprano of a woman who can't pay for her man's funeral fills the auditorium with grief.
Interior scenes are accomplished with few props and a single light fixture. Even a killer hurricane is all about damage on a human scale. From the thundering noise, flashing light and wind that blows down a heavy door, you'd expect devastation in Catfish Row. But in the morning light, the slum's crude facade remains unchanged, bathed in a coppery glow.
The staging throughout is minimalist to the max. The second-act picnic features a projected background that indicates sky, women in cool summery dresses and a lighthearted lilt to let us know we have left the tenement.
Always looming, either in the background or sidling into the picture, is Sporting Life, a smooth hustler and drug dealer given life by Broadway veteran Kingsley Leggs. At the picnic, he is front and center, flouting Bible stories with a lively version of "It Ain't Necessarily So."
An orchestra of 20 mostly local musicians makes its presence felt at almost every moment with a lush cinematic underscoring. Too many cases of singing over each other drown lyrics that are some of Ira Gershwin's most powerful, but the captivating sound and emotion never wane.
When it was introduced on Broadway in 1935, "Porgy and Bess" was a revelation not only for its depiction of a close-knit black enclave in the South, but for its mix of musical genres. In 2014, it retains the power to stir deep emotions and appreciate a sumptuous score sung by a splendid cast.