Porgy and Bess ~ February 25, 2017 @ The Victoria Theater

Summertime and the Living’s Easy

Jazz started to play behind a closed curtain. Scenes from the American 1960’s Civil Rights movement danced on the curtain, illuminated from a projector in the back of the theater. They depicted African Americans fighting for equality. It’s curious how themes repeat themselves throughout history.

Porgy and Bess took over the stage of the Victoria Theater this last month thanks to the Ensemble Theater Company. A musical written in the early 1930s, its theme is just as relevant today as it was back then, although there have been some contemporary adaptations. This particular production was set in the poor fishing community of Catfish Row during the 1960s, brought to life by the sound of jazz prominent in that era. In a nutshell, Porgy is a disabled man living in Catfish Row with a good sense of community, but no woman. Bess is an attractive cocaine addict from the city attached to a well-to-do thug. Things go awry when they visit The Row, Bess’s thug has to skip town in a jiffy, and Bess shacks up with Porgy to wait it out. They fall in love, and then once again, more things go awry.

The small cast worked well together, cohesively portraying a small, poor community that sticks together to care for their own, while keeping out of the “Boss Man’s” way.  The cast efficiently moved pieces around a well-designed set to help establish each scene. Through effective lighting, movement, and of course singing, the New Vic was transformed into Catfish Row during the summertime.

However, the beauty in the story is in its telling – or its singing in this case. The entire cast oozed talent, making jazz that brought both joy and sorrow to the audience. Elijah Rock’s physical depiction of Porgy was so flawlessly executed, I was sure Rock was handicapped himself. And with his deep, soulful voice, Rock added rich soul to his character’s plight. Karole Foreman’s sweet voice made you forget that Bess was an aging addict that lived off men.  However, Frank Lawson stole the show with his portrayal of Sportin’ Life, a previous resident of Catfish Row who is now all fancy in the city and slinging dope.  Lawson danced, swayed, and taunted the others throughout the story, making it hard to know if Sportin’ Life was a good guy or a bad guy – because he was certainly a fun guy.

It was a great ride, with all its ups and downs, suspense and romance. The underlying current of addiction and inequality was painstakingly vibrant throughout the entire ride. Luckily we had jazz, that made the living easy.