The Justice Theater Project’s rendition of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which concludes its two-week run on June 23-25 at the Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh, tells a hauntingly beautiful story, set in “Catfish Row,” a tenement in Charleston, SC. Porgy is a disabled beggar. Bess is a beautiful, sultry woman with a bad reputation. She has been involved with Crown (a tough bullying sort) and Sportin’ Life (a drug dealer).
Circumstances force Bess to seek shelter on Catfish Row, and Porgy is the only resident willing to open his door to her. The two fall in love, and both of their lives are significantly improved. If only “happily ever after” truly existed!
The show is rife with rocking, memorable tunes including “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” We found ourselves foot-tapping and swaying throughout. Every song (whether solo, duet, or ensemble) is ably performed; and every voice is nothing short of excellent.
The band — comprised of Steven B. Diggs, Jr., Sandra Hawkes, Ryan Robinson, Bobby Sherard — and Chris Suggs — is first rate. Likewise, the choreography (arranged by Sheldon Mba and Aya Wallace) is crisp and well-executed.
This production is fast-paced and smooth-flowing; transitions are smooth. Director Deb Royals has assembled and molded a superb cast. The ensemble provides a realistic backdrop for the main action, with individual supporting characters emerging here and there to join in and augment the story.
Phillip Bernard Smith as Porgy shows the joys and despairs inherent in the arc of this man’s story. We celebrate his “whole lotta nuttin'” with him, we feel the warmth of his good fortune, and we experience his losses and his acceptance of them.
Chase Rivers as Crown is appropriately detestable. ‘Nuff said! Equally impressive are Christopher N. Bailey as Sportin’ Life, Moses T. Alexander Greene as Jake, and Connie McCoy as Clara.
And just when we had settled in, feeling we had met the entire colorful, charismatic community — enter Danielle J. Long (with her 100-watt smile) as Bess. Simply stated: when she is on stage, Long owns the scene. Her expressions and body language could easily tell every aspect of the story. As was the case with Phillip Bernard Smith’s Porgy, we felt ourselves pulled along with Long’s Bess on the emotional roller-coaster of her story.
The set, designed by Deb Royals and technical director Jeff Nugent, is an artful combination of the natural and the surreal; and Brenda L. Hayes’ costume design is spot-on, as is the work of lighting designer E. Renee Eisenhour and sound designer Cory Arnold.
From the Department of Pick-Picky:
- Some of the actors wear microphones and others do not. This is understandable, as some voices are stronger than others; and it is a credit to the sound engineer that the levels of all actors were equal. The “nit” that we have to “pick,” however, is this: on a few occasions, characters entered from the back of the house; and when the character in question was “miked,” that character’s audio came from onstage rather than from the character’s actual location, thereby creating momentary confusion. (Like we said: “picky-picky.”)
- We would like to commend Phillip Bernard Smith for the realistic use of his cane. As a cane user, Kurt always notices when an actor forgets which of the character’s legs needs the support.
The Justice Theatre Project always produces socially conscious works, and Porgy and Bess is no exception. We left the theater feeling that we had been introduced to a whole new community with its issues as well as its joys and its sorrows. As a bonus, JTP’s intermissions for this show include a five-minute “temple talk” by a representative of a local nonprofit.
The Justice Theatre Project’s production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess plays through June 25th at the Umstead Park United Church of Christ. Even if you are not a fan of musical theater, don’t miss it!
SECOND OPINION: June 14th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/porgy-and-bess/Event?oid=6617377; and June 10th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Ken Hoover: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8516. (Note: To read Triangle Art’s and Entertainment’s online version of the June 20th Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/06/justice-theater-projects-version-of-the-gershwins-porgy-and-bess-is-a-must-see-show-with-a-wonderful-and-talented-cast/.)
The Justice Theater Project presents THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS at 8 p.m. June 23, 2 and 8 p.m. June 24 and 3 p.m. June 25 at Umstead Park United Church of Christ, 8208 Brownleigh Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina 27617.
TICKETS: $27 ($23 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except $20 per person for groups of 20 or more.
NOTES FROM DRAMATURG CARY PRENTIS JONES: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/about-porgy-and-bess-from-the-dramaturge.
NOTE 1: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Saturday, June 24th, performance.
NOTE 2: Aya Wallace will play Bess at the 2 p.m. Saturday, June 24th, performance.
NOTE 3: There will be FREE childcare of potty-trained children during the 3 p.m. Sunday, June 25th, performance.
Porgy (1925 novel): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_(novel) (Wikipedia).
The Novel (full text): http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/PORGY/porgfron.html (University of Virginia).
DuBose Heyward (Charleston, SC-born novelist, playwright, and lyricist, 1885-1940): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/dubose-heyward-5141 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuBose_Heyward (Wikipedia).
Dorothy Heyward (Wooster, OH-born playwright and lyricist, 1890-1961): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/dorothy-heyward-5115 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Heyward (Wikipedia).
DuBose Heyward (Charleston, SC-born playwright and lyricist, 1885-1940): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/dubose-heyward-5141 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuBose_Heyward (Wikipedia).
Porgy and Bess (1935 Broadway folk opera): http://gershwin.com/publications/porgy-and-bess/ (official web page), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/porgy-and-bess-491542 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_and_Bess (Wikipedia).
George Gershwin (Brooklyn, NY-born composer, 1898-1937): http://gershwin.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/george-gershwin-5813 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006097/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gershwin (Wikipedia).
Ira Gershwin (New York, NY-born lyricist, 1896-1983): http://gershwin.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/ira-gershwin-6435 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0314857/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_Gershwin (Wikipedia).
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (2012 Broadway Revival): http://gershwin.com/publications/gershwins-porgy-and-bess-musical/ (official web page), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/the-gershwins-porgy-and-bess-490541 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_and_Bess#2011_The_Gershwins.27_Porgy_and_Bess_.28Paulus_adaptation.29 (Wikipedia).
Suzan-Lori Parks (Fort Knox, KY-born adapter, 1963-): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/suzan-lori-parks-93779 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzan-Lori_Parks (Wikipedia).
Diedre Murray (Brooklyn, NY-born adapter, 1951-): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/diedre-murray-111627 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diedre_Murray (Wikipedia).
Deb Royals (Raleigh, NC director and artistic director of The Justice Theater Project): http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/who-we-are/ (JTP bio) and https://www.facebook.com/deb.royals (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.