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A Real Sportin’ Career : Although Starring in ‘Porgy’ Several Times Since the ‘60s, Tenor Larry Marshall Has No Trouble Finding New Fodder

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sportin’ Life is a wily fella. The seductive hustler of “Porgy and Bess,” which opens tonight as the final entry in the Los Angeles Music Center Opera season, uses his evanescent ways to bewitch poor Bess.

Not surprisingly, it takes a winsome performer to play him well. But fortunately for George Gershwin’s opera, Larry Marshall is something of a charming chameleon himself.

The veteran singer-actor, 52, who has played the peripatetic pusher in a number of major productions since the 1960s, creates a different Sportin’ Life each time out. “Each time you do it you try to bring a different approach that keeps it fresh,” says Marshall, speaking by phone from his home in New York in early May, between legs of the national tour.

“Every time I come back, I find new things,” Marshall says. “I feel more comfortable than before. Maybe that comes with age and having done it. It’s like putting on an old suit that suddenly fits.”

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In this particular “Porgy and Bess,” however, Marshall’s flexibility has been put to the test. Well into the tour, the Houston Grand Opera brought director Tazewell Thompson on board to modify the work of the original director, Hope Clarke.

For Marshall and his fellow cast members, that has meant learning new moves midstream. But when you’ve played a role as long as he has played Sportin’ Life, incorporating such changes is really only a matter of fine-tuning a longtime work-in-progress. “Through the years, I’ve settled down into a more mature Sportin’ Life,” Marshall says.

When Marshall was younger, his Sportin’ Life was more of a showman. “I was more into the physical look,” he says. “I was interested in trying to [show] flash and style.”

Now, the character is more grounded. “Now I’m not that concerned with him being that song and dance man,” Marshall says. “This time around, [Sportin’ Life] is not so much about flash as persistence and determination.

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"[He is] sort of stalking Bess, as opposed to trying to mesmerize her with flash and style,” Marshall continues. “And I’m more inclined to be aware of my vocal production and phrasing.”

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Raised in South Carolina, Marshall attended Fordham University, Xavier University and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

His first “Porgy and Bess” came early in his professional career, when, in 1966, he joined a small New York production as an understudy. He moved up to supporting roles the next year.

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Back then, the acting community was highly ambivalent about the piece. “When I started, a lot of the actors were leery about doing it because they felt that the public was viewing it as a stereotypical piece,” he says.

But that was not an opinion that Marshall shared. “My personal feeling is that it’s a show for all races,” he says. “It happens to be [set] in a black community, but it doesn’t have to be, because the issues that it’s dealing with are human issues. It transcends race.”

Marshall won Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his work in the 1976 Houston Grand Opera production directed by Jack O’Brien. In that version, the performer created a Sportin’ Life that was an integral part of the community life of Catfish Row.

“We were more involved with Sportin’ Life being communal,” says Marshall of the O’Brien staging, which was revived in the early 1980s. “The idea was that he came from Catfish Row, went to New York and had come back.

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“He fit within the community,” Marshall says. “He had been there. People knew him. He was there in the funeral and hurricane scenes.”

By contrast, the current Houston staging treats Sportin’ Life like an outsider. “In this production he’s more of an outcast,” says Marshall of the Clarke-Thompson version, which is the first professional staging by African American directors. “He is a member of the community, but he’s on the outside. I feel he’s in line, metaphorically, with [a] buzzard.”

That impression of separateness, however, may be affected by the changes Thompson has made in the Clarke staging. According to Marshall--who also sung Sportin’ Life in his Metropolitan Opera debut in a 1990 “Porgy and Bess"--the new director has both focused and expanded the original staging.

The focusing has been for practical purposes. “Because we’re wearing mikes, it’s sometimes hard for the audience to differentiate who’s singing,” says Marshall, in a second interview last week from San Francisco, when the company was still in restaging rehearsals with Thompson. “He’s brought [some of the action] downstage and center so it’s focused.”

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And at least one song that had been staged with the focus on only a few performers has been expanded. “ ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ is going to [be] more of a production number,” Marshall says.

“The way Hope had it set up, basically I was telling the story to the audience and the chorus,” Marshall continues. “Now, there’s more of the chorus participating in the song itself. The side of the chorus that is with me does the steps with me also.”

Thompson has also made changes in the characters’ dramatic motivations, such as in the Act I buzzard scene. “With Hope’s [staging], I would grab [Bess’] hand and . . . pull her across the stage, back to her house,” Marshall says. “Now, I say, ‘Give me your hand,’ and she goes toward the house.”

The choice is logical and also better facilitates the action that follows. “Rather than just dragging her over, I’m there to block her path,” Marshall says. “Now [the reason] I get to the house is to stop her from getting in.”

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Perhaps the most important change, though, is that Marshall feels his performance is even more grounded. “These changes basically are going back to more of an interpretation that I was doing [in previous productions] before Hope,” he says. “The choices are clearer.”

* “Porgy and Bess,” Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., tonight through June 18. $15-$60. (213) 365-3500. Orange County Performing Arts Center, June 21-25. $19-$60. (714) 740-2000.


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