Skylight presents the original 'Porgy and Bess'

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Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre closes its current season with a production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” but artistic director Bill Theisen wants the city to know this isn’t the version that caused a stir on Broadway last year.

That production, featuring Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in the title roles, won a 2012 Tony Award for best revival. But it also drew criticism for changes that were made to the original 1935 work. Recitatives were dropped in favor of dialogue, bringing the production more in line with musical theater than operatic standards. Purists protested, but the show ran for an impressive 322 performances.

Skylight’s version will follow the original operatic format, sharing only the name with the Broadway version. That’s more of a copyright issue than an artistic decision, Theisen says. In 2010, “Porgy and Bess” reached the ripe old age of 75, meaning that it passed into public domain. But the Gershwin estate was able to capitalize on a loophole in copyright law that allowed it to retain ownership by simply changing the title.

Henceforth, all productions of both the opera and the musical adaptation will be known as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” at least for the next 75 years, Theisen says.

The opera, based on Dubose Heyward’s 1927 novel “Porgy,” with a libretto and lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin, recounts the tale of a crippled street beggar and a prostitute who live in the fictional Catfish Row neighborhood of Charleston, S.C. Groundbreaking in its day, it’s considered the first truly American opera, both in terms of the music and its subject matter. 

Musical numbers, including the familiar “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” have entered the American lexicon and given the show its own brand of immortality. The jazz and blues influence in the melodies provide the show with an undeniably original flavor.

Up until then, no operatic composer had ever embraced the jazz idiom to the degree that George Gershwin did with this work. And in 1935, no theatrical production had utilized such a large, all African-American cast. The work was not widely accepted as legitimate opera at the time, and it wasn’t until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera mounted its production with a completely restored original score, that the tide turned in Gershwin’s favor.

The Houston Grand Opera production won a Tony Award and the RCA recording of the opera won a Grammy Award for the company and its conductor John DeMain, who currently presides over the Madison Symphony Orchestra. In fact, DeMain is considered the leading interpreter of “Porgy and Bess.” He might have conducted more productions of the opera than any other living conductor, Theisen says. 

DeMain loaned the Skylight his copies of the score for the current production, and the theater company received permission from the Gershwin estate to re-orchestrate the opera for a smaller ensemble, Theisen says.

Surprisingly, this is the first time Skylight has undertaken the classic.

“We’re in our 54th season, and we have never done ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which is arguably the most important American opera ever written because it was Gershwin – and it was his first opera,” says Theisen. “It doesn’t sound European. It really sounds like us.”

The Skylight’s intimate 358-seat Cabot Theatre will bring the show closer to the audience, giving it a clearer view of who is singing which roles, Theisen said. Milwaukee native Jason McKinney plays Porgy and Kearstin Piper Brown and Rhea Olivaccé share the role of Bess. The show runs May 17–June 9.

Theisen, who is leaving after nine years as Skylight’s artistic director for the University of Iowa, sees “Porgy and Bess” as the perfect swan song for his Milwaukee career.

“I chose this specifically as my last production,” says Theisen, who will take over U of I’s opera program. “It’s a tricky piece and a little expensive, but this was at the top of my wish list.”

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” runs May 17-June 9 at the Cabot Theatre. For more information, visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org.