'Porgy and Bess': Lawd, it's on its way

Despite some offstage storms, Zach's production made a big splash – and may win a second life

David Jennings as Porgy, Marva Hicks as Bess
David Jennings as Porgy, Marva Hicks as Bess

In getting its ambitious new take on Porgy and Bess up before the public, the Zachary Scott Theatre Center came to feel a kinship to the hurricane-blasted residents of Catfish Row. From the moment the company set up shop in the recently retooled Austin Music Hall, it seemed to be slammed with disaster after disaster. Sight lines from the venue's flat-floor seats were problematic. The abundance of exposed concrete in the hall wreaked havoc on the acoustics, making singers all but inaudible in the balcony. On the still-chilly night of the first preview, the heating system had the downstairs freezing while the balcony sweltered. Zach staff scrambled to address the problems: shifting seats; adding sound-absorbing drapes, carpeting, and padded chairs; putting speakers in the balcony; and hiring an acoustical consultant to help balance the sound mix.

But no sooner had they dealt with these issues than – and here's where it gets ironic for the show with characters stranded by floodwaters – the Music Hall itself flooded. During Wednesday night's performance, clean water (not sewage) began rising out of drains in the restrooms, the dressing-room showers, and a backstage utility room. The Austin Fire Department had to shut off the building's water, and patrons were sent to La Zona Rosa to use the bathrooms. (A plumber reportedly found a piece of material the size of a bedsheet balled up in the pipes.)

However, as stormy as the run was at times (and blessedly, the flood was the last of the disasters), Porgy and Bess made a grand splash. Zach did triple the business of its best box-office weeks, selling $100,000 worth of tickets in a week, and the overall run surpassed revenue expectations by 17%. The New York Times gave the production (and Zach) some major national media attention with a glowing 1,000-word feature that ran in the Arts section on Jan. 29 and received prominent placement on the Times website all week. And, biggest silver lining of all, several influential figures who might help it have another life flew in to see the show.

In attendance Saturday night were Broadway producer Tom Viertel of Richard Frankel Productions (Hairspray, The Producers, Young Frankenstein); Ira Gershwin's nephew Mike Strunsky of the Ira Gershwin Trust; producer Matt Ross of Broadway PR firm Boneau/Bryan-Brown; Tom Key of Theatrical Outfit, Atlanta; and representatives of Virginia Opera. They met with Zach Artistic Director Dave Steakley and managing director Elisbeth Challener for several hours after the show, all with praise for Zach's work. "The big news for us that night," Steakley says, "was how much the Gershwin estate enjoyed the production and gave us their blessing to move forward. It was great getting their input on what they thought worked so well in our production, since they have seen countless productions of the opera and Trevor Nunn's musical version. They were very taken with Robin Lewis' choreography and said it was hands-down the best dancing of any production they had ever seen. The decision to make it relevant to these times with the post-hurricane rooftop scene also won high praise. They have requested that I make a two-act/one-intermission version by making further cuts of my choice. So we will be investigating putting together a consortium of regional theatres who will produce the next developmental stage of Zach's version of Porgy and Bess. And Virginia Opera is interested in producing our version in their 2009-10 season and touring it."

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More Porgy and Bess
Jazzin' Up Catfish Row
Jazzin' Up Catfish Row
After 70 years, Zach creates a Porgy and Bess for Austin

Graham Reynolds, Jan. 25, 2008

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Porgy and Bess, Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Dave Steakley, Austin Music Hall

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