Just a year ago, it seemed unimaginable that the South Florida Symphony could top its dazzling collaboration with the famed Martha Graham Dance Co. that resulted in the world premiere of a new ballet, “Legend of Bird Mountain.”
The “folk opera” by George and Ira Gershwin and based on DuBose Heyward’s 1925 best-selling novel, “Porgy,” and a later stage adaptation, penned by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, debuted in 1935. Heyward collaborated with the Gershwin brothers on the project, mostly by mail, in the final two years of development.
In Heyward’s story, audiences are transported to impoverished black tenements near the Charleston waterfront, “Catfish Row.” The residents include Porgy, a crippled beggar who takes in Bess after her brutal lover, Crown, murders Robbins during a craps game and flees the police. As Bess begins to develop feelings for Porgy and cast away the demons of her past, Crown returns and forces her to make a fateful decision.
Since its premiere, “Porgy and Bess” has been performed the world over and commands a place among the great American classics. A 2012 Broadway revival that also toured (making a stop at the Kravis Center in 2014) offered a tightened, somewhat contemporary musical interpretation of the opera, but opportunities to enjoy the full opera performed live with a full cast and symphonic accompaniment are rare.
This was no small undertaking for the plucky South Florida Symphony, which performs at venues in Key West, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton. President Jacqueline Lorber and artistic director Sebrina Maria Alfonso assembled a dream team, including stage director Richard Jay-Alexander, the Miami-based Broadway impresario who produces Barbra Streisand’s concerts; award-winning choreographer Ron Hutchins; and scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III, who incidentally participated in symphony youth programs while growing up in Key West.
The production came with a nearly $500,000 price tag and, at the last minute, state funding for the arts was cut, sending Lorber into fundraising overdrive.
Acknowledging that Gershwin’s jazz- and gospel-infused score was such an integral part to the work, the orchestra is placed on the stage, wedged between shacks and the boardwalk. They don’t simply provide accompaniment, but share an equal role in the dramatic action.
Alfonso and her musicians are also residents of Catfish Row, interacting with the characters and responding to the events in Jay-Alexander’s spectacular staging.
Paul dePoo takes advantage of cutting-edge 3-D mapping technology to transform the minimal sets and background curtain into a colorful, vibrant community. The residents of Catfish Row are then transported to a sunny island for a church picnic and placed in the path of a threatening hurricane.
The cast, led by Neil Nelson (“Porgy”) and Brandie Sutton (“Bess”), is outstanding throughout, but from the first notes of Miami-native Kyaunnee Richardson’s “Summertime” early in the first scene, the audience was put on notice that this was to be a truly memorable occasion. Michael Redding’s “Crown” was both terrifying and tantalizing, in part thanks to Hutchins.
The South Florida Symphony next presents works by Moncayo, Rachmaninov and Nielsen on Feb. 20 at the Tennessee Williams Theatre in Key West, Feb. 21 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale and Feb. 22 at the Spanish River Worship Center in Boca Raton.
Tickets and more information at SouthFloridaSymphony.org.