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Porgy & Lesenger

Opera Carolina presents one of its finest ever


After last week's mammoth production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at Belk Theater, one thing must be obvious to Opera Carolina subscribers. What we beheld when Jay Lesenger was stage director for Der Rosenkavalier was no fluke. He sits securely at or near the top of the company's A-list of stage directors they'll want for future productions.

Credit scenic designer Michael Yeargen with capturing the sultry, ramshackle ambience of Catfish Row, even if he does omit palmettos and an ocean backdrop. But it's Lesenger who deftly deploys his bit players and his chorus so that Yeargen's pink plaza with its dilapidated shutters comes to life and becomes a self-contained community.

With Lesenger's vigilant attention to detail, we realize that DuBose Heyward's storyline, lovingly nurtured in the novelist's libretto, is every bit as rich and colorful as Gershwin's music and brother Ira's lyrics. The dice game in the opening scene, the picnic pageantry in Act 2, and the huddled tension during the Act 3 hurricane -- augmented with oncoming darkness, flashing lights, and the odd thunderbolt -- all had the right bustling intensity.

Of course, you want the Gershwin material handled with equal artistry. Alvy Powell, with his burly trunk and rich booming voice, almost triumphed single-handedly as Porgy. Legs tucked beneath him most of the night, Powell easily took care of our crippled hero's pathos, but he also looked potent enough to subdue the murderous Crown when he came to reclaim his Bess.

Even in the lightest of moments, Powell never faltered. After Crown runs away to Kittiwah Island, Porgy wants to marry Bess and summons a lawyer to divorce Bess and pave the way for their marriage. Trouble is, Bess never really married Crown. So the cunning lawyer, after receiving a dollar from Porgy for a conventional divorce, ups his price to a dollar-and-a-half to perform this more challenging legal maneuver.

Despite Bess's sensible warning, Porgy shells out the extra four bits. Powell's earnestness through all this adorable chivalry paid huge dividends when, shortly afterwards, Porgy and Bess were left alone and sang their unforgettable "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." Coming on the heels of the quaint ceremonial divorce, the rhapsodic duet really feels like their marriage, overpowering in its impact.

While she's not Powell's equal vocally, Roberta Laws' passion made the "I Loves You Porgy" duet another powerhouse. She did sashay as if she were hot stuff before -- and after -- she discovered the wonder of living decent.

Robert Mack complemented her beautifully as Sporting Life, moving slickly around the stage, each new costume louder and more outrageous than the one before, sprinkling his cynical hedonistic solos with carefree falsetto yelps.

Louise Toppin launched the evening with a dreamy rendition of "Summertime," a melody so delicious that we're apt to forget the extreme irony of the lyric -- the living isn't easy on Catfish Row, and nobody's taking to the sky. After the drunken Crown murders her hapless Robbins, Angela Renee Simpson's lament as Serena, "My Man's Gone Now," nearly melted the building.

The only subpar performance among the principals came from Cedric Cannon as Crown, a bit phony in his drunkenness and a bit stiff in his lechery. On occasion, there was also unwanted restraint in the pit. After a fine account of the brief intro, the Symphony sounded hesitant to move back to the forefront.

Watching this Porgy and Bess in the Carolinas, we could easily overlook some of its key strengths. Kittiwah looked as convincing as Charleston during our brief island sojourn. More importantly, the accent of the singing and the dialogue almost always sounded like it was coming from our near neighbors. Try listening to some of the most prestigious CD sets of the opera if you think that's a small consideration.

Yes, this Porgy stands shoulder-to-shoulder with OC's 2002 production of Der Rosenkavalier in the elite circle of the very best opera performances we've seen in Charlotte. We need to see more from Lesenger.

At certain times in particular places, the currents of social change and history run perilously swift. In Judy Simpson Cook's 1963, now playing in its world premiere production at SouthEnd Performing Arts Center, we realize that one of those times is the seething summer before the famed March on Washington and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" eloquence.

We find ourselves in the sleepy town of Rutledge, NC, sitting near the front porch of the Chandler family. They're good people who, when we first meet them, would like to see all the fuss die down. But Cook denies them that option. Ezra Chandler is the principal of the high school, which means that this fall or next, he'll be standing at the front lines when desegregation comes to Rutledge. He'd like to avoid taking a stand, but his 16-year-old daughter Molly flaunts his authority and chooses a black neighbor, James Walters, to tutor her in algebra.Soon she's asking to take part with James in a sit-in at the local Rexall. After the local sheriff brutalizes the non-violent demonstrators, she's asking to join in a march on Raleigh. And after the infamous church bombing in Birmingham, she's demanding it.

Cook is as sympathetic to the fence- sitters as she is to the idealists in this thoughtfully spun tale -- and James's father is as opposed to his child's activism as Molly's. There were still some kinks in the BareBones Theatre Group co-production with Pam Galle's TorchBearer Productions last Friday night, very likely because Cook was still on hand tinkering with the script.

The whole project is worth the extra effort, clearly Cook's most powerful drama to date. Galle and Carl McIntyre beautifully measure Mr. and Mrs. Chandler while Chandler McIntyre and Bobby Tyson do justice to the children who lead them. Much of the humor flowing through the evening comes from Jerry Colbert as Ezra's pettifogging brother Zeke -- a skillfully drawn lawyer who turns out to be more of a jackass than a bigot.

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