Last Saturday, Charleston Jazz Orchestra premiered a completely fresh production of Ira and George Gershwin's classic American folk opera, Porgy and Bess. After the success of the 2012 Broadway revival of the piece, Charleston Jazz Orchestra wanted to bring the work back to its Charleston roots. What they came up with was something completely different from what anyone could've expected: a concert and a concert alone. And that meant no actors and no sets.
It's quite daring to reimagine such a renowned piece of American music, a work that literally helped set the stage for an art form now known as the Broadway musical. I talked to CJO's Leah Suarez and Charlton Singleton before the show about what to expect from the production. They confidently told me that though this rendition featured completely new musical arrangements from their own Robert Lewis, that the music would speak for itself and be accessible to a contemporary audience.
Yet I was suspicious. Old art is presented all the time, with the audience bearing in mind that it isn't made for a modern audience — it's the audience's job to know this. How can you really make an 80-year-old opera accessible to today's audience? As I glanced around the house before the show started, I noted that I was probably the only patron there under the age of 30. This didn't surprise me, but it made me question how "modern" the audience actually would be. Furthermore, how do you expect to tell a story as complex as the one told in Porgy and Bess concert-style?
After viewing the re-imagined work, the answers became easily apparent. This story wasn't the linear plot typically told in Gershwin's opera. It was a new story, the story of a city — the Holy City — and the frenzied rhythms that pulse through Charleston's atmosphere every day. Lewis' jumpin' arrangements will be ringing in my young ears for days to come. I've searched and searched for a recording of "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin" that is anywhere close to as lively as their rendition, and nothing else out there even comes close. And yet, at the same time, the pieces were still just as powerful as their original source. The more upbeat arrangements of classics like "Nuttin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" had me tappin' my feet for hours afterward, and Suarez's roaring vocals on the iconic "Summertime" sent chills down my spine that will never be forgotten.
If I have any criticism of the CJO production, it's that it didn't run multiple nights. I'd love for more of Charleston to experience this piece about our city in CJO's original form that truly highlights the work's origins. The video projections in the background of the city — from our natural beaches and marshes to shots of King Street's more historic architecture — made the connections clear to any Charlestonian. Singleton led the way as both the show's ringleader and as a vocalist, while Suarez brought down the house with her untouchable vocal abilities. The orchestra was perfection as well, with energy swarming the building from every note they hit. Each instrumental soloist seemed to be just as fabulous as the last — their energies built off of one another, creating a perfect ensemble that truly represented our city's harmonizing communities. It was the perfect way to show off a modern day Charleston, while utilizing a classical piece of art.