Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley star as 'Porgy and Bess.' (Michael J. Lutch)
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” So go the lyrics to the most popular song from the opera “Porgy and Bess,” with music composed by George and Ira Gershwin.
“You hear it in commercials, and so many artists have covered that song,” says Nathaniel Stampley, who plays Porgy in the Tony Award-winning musical version, which comes to the Detroit Opera House March 4-9.
“People may not even know where it’s from most of the time,” he says. The song has been covered some 25,000 times.
First performed in 1935 with an all African-American cast of professional actors and singers, the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” has become an American classic, Stampley raves.
“It’s a beautiful story about life, and love and loss, and hope, and community,” he says.
The story takes place in Charleston, S.C.’s fictitious Catfish Row, where the disabled street beggar Porgy falls in love with Bess, a beautiful woman with an undesirable background.
“Through a series of events, they find each other and they find the best in each other. She doesn’t judge him for being disabled, and he doesn’t judge her based on her past,” Stampley says.
“It’s the kind of love we all wish and hope for all our lives,” says the actor. “And if you meet someone like that, you will do everything in your power to protect that and defend that. And that’s who Porgy is.”
And Bess, he says, is the fulfillment of many things Porgy didn’t think were possible in his life on the street.
On the other hand, “Bess is trouble,” says Alicia Hall Moran, who plays Bess to Stampley’s Porgy. “She’s the kind of woman on whom so many people pin their hopes and dreams.”
Moran explains the religious women in Catfish Row want Bess to turn to God. Bess is also the object of sexual attraction from the men in the community.
“She’s the object of Crown’s desire to control women, and she’s prey to the drug pusher Sportin’ Life,” Moran says. “And she becomes the focus of all the best in Porgy, who’s kind of like a good man who had grown weary.”
There have been several revivals of “Porgy and Bess” on stage and film through the years, with a cast of actors that include opera legend Leontyne Price as Bess, concert baritone-bass singer/actor William Warfield as Porgy and band-leader Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life, and poet Maya Angelou had a small role as a dancer in the 1952 touring production.
In 1959, the film rendition starred actors Sidney Poitier as Porgy and Dorothy Dandridge as Bess. Because neither actor was a singer, operatic baritone Robert McFerrin Sr. — the father of singer Bobby McFerrin — dubbed Poitier’s singing. For Dandridge’s songs, lyric soprano Adele Addison’s voice was dubbed in.
As it turned out, long befgore taking the role of Bess, Moran studied under Addison while at the Manhattan School of Music.
Moran commuted from New York to Ann Arbor to study under the late Shirley Verrett, a Detroit-area operatic mezzo-soprano, from 2005-2006.
“She had students singing at the Michigan Opera Theatre,” Moran fondly remembers. “And we’d go to the Opera House, that beautiful building in Detroit. And I would never have thought I’d get the chance to perform in that building. I cannot believe this is happening.”
Both Stampley and Moran understudied as Porgy and Bess in the pre-Broadway and Broadway productions of the musical opera — Stampley for Norton Lewis and Moran for Audra McDonald. For Stampley, this is a full-circle kind of experience.
“I was 15 or 16 years old, and I got a chance to be in the opera chorus of ‘Porgy and Bess’ with a professional opera company. So I got to hear this music, and be around these incredible singers, and enjoy the story up-close and personal.
“And I always thought you know, man, one day if I could do what they’re doing I’d be the happiest guy in the world. And here I am a couple of decades later living a dream. It’s one of those things where I couldn’t have written it if I tried.”
The Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess'
8 p.m. Tuesday-March 8, 2 p.m. March 8-9, 7:30 p.m. March 9
Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway, Detroit
(313) 237-SING or (800) 745-3000
Andrea Daniel is a freelance reporter.