By MARK KENNEDY AP Drama Writer
Nathaniel Stampley ached to make the role of Porgy his own in the celebrated 2012 Broadway revival of “Porgy and Bess.” Instead, he kept dying.
Stampley was an understudy for Norm Lewis in the title role and bided his time by playing the small role of Robbins in the revamped version of the Gershwin classic. Robbins is killed with a cotton hook in a fight after a dice game on page 15 of the script.
Now Stampley, who first fell in love with the musical as a teenager in the chorus of a production in Milwaukee, will finally get his shot as Porgy: He leads the national tour that kicks off a 14-state tour this weekend in San Francisco.
“Let me tell you. It’s a dream come true,” he says. “This is a full-circle moment for me many, many years later. I’m humbled by that and yet I’m really excited.”
Stampley, together with Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, are among a cast of almost 30 that will crisscross the country until next summer in the Tony Award-winning production that wowed audiences on Broadway.
The musical, backed by a 23-piece orchestra on the road, looks at life in the fictitious Catfish Row in the early 1920s. It boasts such classic songs as “Summertime,” ”Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” ”I Got Plenty o’ Nothin'” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, adapted the Gershwin opera for the Broadway stage with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray.
The team condensed the four-hour opera into a two-and-one-half-hour musical, eliminated a lot of the repetitiveness and tried to deepen the characters. Their effort generated headlines when purists including Stephen Sondheim complained that a musical treasure was being corrupted.
But powered by Lewis and Audra McDonald onstage, the revival won the best revival Tony — beating Sondheim’s “Follies,” by the way — and was a box office draw. Paulus, who since has found success reinvigorating “Pippin,” was happy to return to “Porgy and Bess” and get it ready to tour.
“It’s such a great opportunity to go back to something like this because it gives back so much,” she says. “It’s like having children — you relive the thrill through people who have never experienced it before.”
“Porgy and Bess,” which premiered in 1935, has a special place in American theater history. It was one of the first shows to showcase classically trained African-American singers to a mainstream audience.
The opera’s first national tour played a role in desegregating the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. The original Porgy, Todd Duncan, refused to go on stage unless all seats were open to all colors for all performances. That will no doubt be remembered when the tour hits Washington before Christmas.
“We stand on the shoulders of all the people who have been part of the history of this work. There’s nothing better than feeling connected,” says Paulus. “There is this history. And rather than it feeling like a burden, you rise on top of it.”
Stampley hopes this production will make “Porgy and Bess” accessible to a younger audience. “You still get the best of both worlds. You still get a great story and you get to hear Gershwin. Anytime you get to hear Gershwin in your life, it’s a good thing.”
Like Stampley, the new Bess has been waiting a long time to make the role her own. She too was an understudy on Broadway for McDonald and can’t wait to show the country her impressive voice and acting chops.
“I think I have always had a very large personality. It’s very lucky for me that I’m getting this opportunity to bring my art to a very big stage,” says Moran, a California native. Plus, she calls her Porgy a “walking, talking greatness machine of kindness.”
The tour has given costume designer Emilio Sosa a chance to tweak the outfits that earned him a Tony nomination. “I like to keep it fresh and interesting,” says the designer, who has created costumes from everyone from Celine Dion to Alvin Ailey dancers.
He plans to stop by the tour in San Francisco, Washington and Dallas. “I call them drive-bys. They might be called fly-bys for this tour,” he says with a laugh. “I like to just drive by and live it — see how things are.”
One member of the company never actually got to see the “Porgy and Bess” revival on Broadway and she has a very good reason. Danielle Lee Greaves, who plays Mariah, was busy acting in the revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that was on simultaneously.
The New Yorker says she is looking forward to hitting the road, having toured with “Rent” and “The Lion King.” She’s never been to Las Vegas or San Francisco and is excited to return to Seattle and Los Angeles.
A self-described “pro-packer,” Greaves offers these tips from a theater pro: Put everything in plastic baggies, use a duffle bag instead of a suitcase and roll everything up: “You can’t imagine how much you can get into a suitcase when you roll it,” she says.