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Mayor Menino, President Pelton celebrate groundbreaking play at Colonial

by Eric Twardzik / Beacon Staff • October 16, 2011

, Beacon Correspondent

A favorite son has returned to Boston and given its own day of honor./div

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Mayor Thomas Menino declared September 30th “The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ Day” in Boston to honor the historic production that premiered 76 years ago at the Colonial Theatre, which is now owned and operated by Emerson College. Menino was joined by Emerson President M. Lee Pelton, the cast of ART’s production of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and representatives from the American Repertory Theater (ART), Broadway in Boston, and the Citi Performing Arts Center.

The anniversary of the show’s first production coincided with the final weekend of the American Repertory Theater’s sold out re-imagining of Porgy and Bess, which concluded its run on Oct. 2. The lauded ART production is leaving Boston for Broadway, where it will preview in December and open in January.

Conceived by George Gershwin as an “American Folk Opera,” the play tells the story of Porgy, a poor black beggar trying to rescue troubled Bess from an abusive lover and a seedy drug dealer.  Several of its songs have been recognized as part of the Great American Song Book, such as “Summertime,” “Bess You is My Woman Now,” and “I Loves You Porgy.” Set in the African-American slums of Charleston, SC, in the 1920s, it was one of the first major theatrical productions in America to feature an all black cast. President Pelton’s remarks emphasized the importance of the show’s original 1935 run.

“The audience knew on Sept. 30, 1935 that they liked what they saw and rewarded the cast, made up almost entirely of people of color, with a raucous 15 minute standing ovation,” said Pelton, according to a transcript of the event.

ART director Diane Paulus changed the title to emThe Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess/em to differentiate it from the original emPorgy and Bes/ems, which she has made changes to in order “introduce the work to the next generation of theatregoers,” according to the show’s program. To appeal to a more contemporary audience Paulus made changes to plot, had dialogue spoken rather than delivered operatically, and added a more upbeat ending. These changes to the classic opera were met with some criticism, particularly from composer Stephen Sondheim who wrote a scathing reproach as a letter to the editor of the New York Times Arts section.

At the press conference Paulus connected her production to the original. “With our production, we hope to honor the past and give new audiences an opportunity to fall in love with this American classic,” said Paulus, according to a transcript. “And we stand on the shoulders of those groundbreaking artists that embarked on this journey 76 years ago today.”

Menino also noted the significance of emPorgy and Bess/em to Boston and the country as a whole. “emPorgy and Bes/ems is a national treasure,” said Menino. “We are proud that Boston played a critical role in the development of this great work of art.

The Colonial Theatre has a history of hosting the first productions of American classics. emOklahama!/em,em Carousel/em, emBorn Yesterday/em, and emAnnie Get Your Gun/em all ran in the Colonial before taking their place in America’s musical theater canon on Broadway.

Pelton also used the event to announce that the Colonial Theatre, following renovations in the winter, will re-open under a new partnership between the Citi Performing Arts Center and Emerson. Under this new partnership Pelton hopes to continue the Colonial Theatre’s tradition of hosting and introducing theater productions to Boston and America.

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