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GERSHWIN REVIVAL : OPERA PACIFIC BRINGS ‘PORGY’ TO ORANGE COUNTY

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Times Music Critic

There were parties, celebrations, speeches. Special banners adorned the already embellished facade of Segerstrom Hall. Klieg lights streaked the sky. Politicos mouthed prepackaged puff. Someone introduced a cinematic Sportin’ Life in the audience: Sammy Davis Jr. The crowd cheered.

It was an orgy of self-congratulation. An orgy, as it were, and Bess.

A visitor from Mars, or from faraway Los Angeles, would have thought that Orange County had invented the wheel, or, at the very least, staged the operatic coup of the century.

In truth, a new organization called Opera Pacific was playing host to an excellent touring production of Gershwin’s oft-maligned “Porgy.” The local contribution consisted of a pickup orchestra and some cash. That’s all.

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Luckily, it was cash well spent. It was cash, furthermore, that represents a down payment for activities designed to serve the lyric muse in and for the environs of Costa Mesa.

The inaugural activities did, however, seem a bit strange at worst, conservative at best.

After “Porgy” moves on to Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and numerous other locales, the local guardians of musico-dramatic virtue will turn to a recycled Broadway show imported from Michigan: “West Side Story.” This is opera?

Then, in March, comes another safe bet: a “La Boheme” from Washington. This, at least, is opera.

Much fuss was made at the “Porgy” inauguration concerning a “marketing effort that has yielded more than 15,000 subscribers . . . (an) overwhelming and enthusiastic response that has catapulted the company into the fifth-largest subscription-base-supported company in the United States.”

It sounds nice. Close scrutiny, however, raises the specter of statistical manipulation. The Performing Arts Center seats 3,000. “La Boheme” will receive only four performances. Even a mathematical idiot such as your faithful scribe can figure out that 3,000 multiplied by 4 equals 12,000.

Under the circumstances, one cannot help wondering how all of the 15,000 vaunted subscribers can have their Puccinian tears jerked in Orange County.

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Oh, well. Back to “Porgy.”

Gershwin’s historical depiction of agony and ecstasy on Catfish Row has undergone some interesting metamorphoses since its premiere as a Broadway quasimusical in 1935.

There was a glamorous revival in 1952 that introduced a promising Bess named Leontyne Price and a slinky Sportin’ Life named Cab Calloway. There was a glitzy Civic Light Opera reduction in 1974, and a blown-up Radio City Music Hall distortion in 1983. The mighty Metropolitan Opera mustered a bloated and pretentious perversion in 1985.

The best “Porgy,” by far, was the one staged in 1976 by the Houston Grand Opera. This deftly scaled, musically sensitive, dramatically serious production soon conquered Broadway and took to the road. The road eventually led to the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, where “Porgy” enjoyed an artistic triumph and suffered a financial fiasco.

The current version is, essentially, a revival of the model Houston staging.

The picturesque, turnaround sets by Douglas W. Schmidt (a bit kitschy when it comes to Kittiwah Island) are cut-down adaptations of the vast Radio City panoramas. The casts include a number of new faces. The new choreography of George Faison is obtrusively slick. Otherwise, this remains the “Porgy” we have known and loved for a decade--a “Porgy” that strikes its folksy and/or poignant poses with authority, with conviction and integrity.

Jack O’Brien’s direction still stresses fluidity of action, urgency of mood and clarity of character motivation. It still steadfastly avoids the cliched and cute.

John DeMain sometimes may have found the acoustic of the Segerstrom pit too live for orchestral comfort. Nevertheless, he still serves Gershwin with point, propulsion and reasonable fidelity to the original dimensions of the score.

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The opening-night ensemble proved more notable for team spirit than for individual excellence on Wednesday.

The Porgy was Mic Bell, a pop virtuoso with a late incarnation of the Fifth Dimension. He played the crippled beggar with requisite heroic pathos, propelled himself about the stage on his makeshift gurney with bravura speed, sang with a rough and sturdy, seemingly untrained basso that succumbed to strain in the final high climaxes.

Carmen Balthrop, his sympathetic Bess, found an interesting if not altogether convincing middle ground between the earthy and the demure, looked gorgeous, often swallowed the words, and sang very prettily when not daunted by the should-be ethereal top tones.

The supporting cast was dominated by Larry Marshall, the familiar, dangerously suave Sportin’ Life. William Bradley-Jones, replacing the once-promised Gregg Baker, could do little with the macho villainy of Crown.

Rita McKinley as Clara caressed the languid sentiment of “Summertime” nicely. Patricia Miller as Serena offered the finest, most gutsy singing of the evening in “My Man’s Gone Now.” Marjorie Wharton reduced the matriarchal duties of Maria to shrill caricature.

Although the singers were of bona fide operatic caliber, local authorities deemed it necessary to use electronic amplification. The voices, as a result, seemed bigger if not better than life. Adjustments, no doubt, will be made.

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Another beginning . . .

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