AURORA | Theater and expectations often make for disappointment.
That’s not the case in the Aurora Fox theater’s production of “Porgy and Bess.” This production will blow away anything you might expect about this aging show, and about metro-Aurora’s regional theater scene.
Ask anyone who’s been enchanted by astounding theater, the second time you see “Lion King” or “Billy Elliot” or “Cat on Hot Tin Roof” can be good or even great, but it never replays that jaw-dropping mesmerizing effect like the first time you saw the dream scene in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Likewise, shows you’ve seen that had you checking your watch all night and scouring the program synopsis for relief thinking, “just two more scenes,” rarely prove to be different the second time around. For me, “Into The Woods,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Mid-Summer’s Night Dream” are like a recurring chest cold.
And Porgy and Bess. Before I saw what Aurora Fox director Donnie L. Betts did with this show, I’d squirmed through what has always been a marginal opera, a cliché and preposterously racist story, and a growing list of reasons why this show probably shouldn’t have been launched and certainly shouldn’t be revived.
However, the revised book, or libretto, by Suzan-Lori Parks, a new musical adaptation, the strong and artful hand of Betts and an astonishing cast not only make this a whole new show, they make it a rewarding night at the theater no one could expect.
While the Fox show retains much of the operatic feel and style of the original, Betts and the cast expertly mix stage styles to come up with something completely different. It fits the songs, the arias, the orchestration and choreography of what the Gershwins started. Porgy is no longer a borderline black-face cliché of a downtrodden Southern beggar. Bess is no longer a stereotype of a lost drug addict. The inhabitants of Catfish Row are no longer pantomime additions like black maids and “sho thing, Boss” bolt-ons in a Shirley Temple flick. The new production, and this cast in particular, give them depth and influence on a show that reflects the tenets of Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, not pulp fiction.
And if you’d rather just set all that academic theater blather aside, this “Porgy and Bess” is simply a spectacle and a great night of theater.
It’s still the story of a drug addict and crippled beggar trying to create a life together in a Depression-struck South Carolina shanty town. And the orchestra still plays out familiar, swelling, percussion-laden Gershwin scores. And the set looms large and dark over the themes and characters and town it presents. The operatic chorus underscores the ache of Porgy and Bess and everyone who’s struggled and lost.
But from the first moment Clara and Jake, played by Erica Papillion-Posey and David Sweet, ring out “Summertime,” the cast takes total control of the show and audience. At times, the effect is spellbinding. Tracy Camp’s Bess is a moving tribute to lost women everywhere. Leonard Barrett’s Porgy is a seamless tale of every man who’s struggled against fate and himself.
But more than anything, the show exemplifies how much astonishing talent there is in the Aurora-Denver theater scene, and especially talent among black actors and artists. The show makes permanent the Aurora Fox’s place in the region’s impressive theater community, as a leader.
Productions like this one make it obvious the Broadway travelers at the Denver Center for Performing arts aren’t the only shows in town, and you’re missing out if you don’t see that for yourself.
“Porgy and Bess”
Through Jan. 1 at Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 E. Colfax
Tickets are $24-$37
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