Wednesday, March 19 — When “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin’s American opera debuted in 1935, Jim Crow still ruled the roost in America. Since then, laws have changed, ideals have shifted, but white people are still more likely to have lunch with white people and black people are still more likely to have lunch with black people. What hasn’t changed is the uniqueness of this show, which was just as singular then as it is now. Seriously: How many operas specifically set in the African-American community do you know of?
“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” playing through Sunday at the Wharton Center, is the latest revival of this American masterpiece. It challenges contemporary notions of morality, tastefully deals with the addiction and gambling problems that plague poor communities and crackles with idiomatic dialogue that swims through the soaring blues, gospel and jazz numbers that propel the plot. It’s better than great, bigger than huge: You’re not going to see a better show this year.
“Porgy” is set in the fictional Catfish Row in South Carolina during the Great Depression, following a hardscrabble community of dockworkers and their families. Porgy is a crippled beggar who takes in Bess, a woman of low social standing whose husband goes on the run after murdering a man. Porgy and Bess fall in love and quickly change each other for the better — she kicks her drug habit and clings to her new clean life and he, for the first time, opens his heart and gets to share his life with someone. But fate will not let these star-crossed lovers be.
Alicia Hall Moran is devastating and raw in her role of Bess. This is, after all, our romantic heroine, but as we see her battle the temptations of “happy dust” and fight with all her feeble might against her formidable ex who wants what’s “his,” we realize how brutal her life is. Moran’s angelic voice pierces the heart and dizzies the head. Nathaniel Stampley, meanwhile, injects Porgy with a nobility that belies his life at the bottom of the heap. He doesn’t elicit your pity, but commands your respect. Stampley’s honey-thick bass warms the soul, even as your heart breaks as he struggles across the stage on his twisted, malformed legs.
As unlikely as their paring is, you buy it, hook line and sinker. For two hours, their love is a palpable presence on that stage every bit as real as the rest of the company.
Denisha Ballew, as the young widow Serena, invests a sad, emotionally stirring edge to the production — you feel like you had a good soul cleaning at the end of each of her numbers. And Kingsely Leggs seems to have a knack for taking on likably hatable villains. He played Curtis Jackson, the sketchy nightclub owner in the “Sister Act” musical last year; he returns to the Wharton stage as Sporting Life, the ice-cold villain with a pocket full of poison. Very serpent-in-the-garden-of-Eden, this one. Leggs’ playful tenor and nimble footwork give his scenes a gleeful menace.
The Southern patois makes great chunks of the songs unintelligible, but you don’t really need to understand the words to feel the show’s meaning — the combined powers of community, faith and love can transform anyone into anything they want to be. Even if all they want is to be is someone else’s protector.
“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”
Wharton Center, Cobb Great Hall
Through Sunday, March 23
7:30 p.m. tonight-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday- Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
750 W. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com