By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
AUSTIN, Tex. — “Summertime/And the livin’ is easy” takes on a whole new meaning when the time becomes the summer of 2005, and the storm-tossed denizens of Catfish Row find themselves stranded on the Katrina-flooded rooftops of New Orleans.
That’s the breakout scene in a bluesy new jazz, gospel and dance staging of “Porgy and Bess,” George Gershwin’s classic American opera of Depression-era black South Carolina fishing folk, as reinterpreted by the Zachary Scott Theater Center, this capital city’s leading stage company and central Texas’s oldest, now in its 75th-anniversary season.
“When we were rehearsing that scene, going to the rooftops, what those people were feeling in real life made me cry,” said Sacha Crosby, who plays Clara and disappears in the storm, her baby and lullaby bequeathed to Bess.
True to Gershwin, nobody says New Orleans or Katrina. But the populated roofs are an unmistakable symbol, as smoke from dry ice evokes the rising waters and seems to set the characters awash in a now familiar wasteland.
The original had the fishing folk huddled in their crumbling coastal mansion as the hurricane rages. In this version the second act opens with fishermen pulling in a huge net rigged over the theater’s orchestra level, creating the illusion in the watery blue lighting that the audience itself is being reeled in.
A nine-piece orchestra of piano, drums, strings and brass alludes to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
The final act goes back to the original, restoring what production notes call a “symphony of everyday objects,” a “Stomp!”-like song-scape showing ordinary people at work rebuilding their lives after the hurricane. Gershwin wrote it for the Broadway debut in 1935 but edited it out of later productions.
Anticipation has been high, with the Zach — as Austinites call the theater, named for a native son, the actor Zachary Scott — recording by far its highest sales in one week, $100,000 in nonsubscription tickets.
“Porgy and Bess,” Gershwin’s most elaborate composition, based on a novelized true-crime tale, is built around the redeeming love of the maimed Porgy for the loose Bess, in thrall to her pimp, Crown, and a serpentine drug dealer, Sportin’ Life. It added standards to the American songbook like “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
In this production, which opened on Friday for a 10-performance run in the hurriedly renovated 1,000-seat Austin Music Hall, the music, lyrics and plot are faithful to what Gershwin and his collaborators — his brother Ira, and the writers DuBose and Dorothy Heyward — wrote and Gershwin trimmed for its 1935 debut. Added to that are jazz-heavy soul and gospel orchestrations, choreography and imagery meant to give it a contemporary twist and evoke the Big Easy. The choreography by Robin Lewis is indebted to Bob Fosse and African tribal dance.
“I’m trying to draw attention to the resonance this has for our community,” said Dave Steakley, the theater’s producing artistic director, who won a $40,000 American Masterpieces grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help turn the opera, which lasts up to four hours, into a two-and-a-half-hour musical.
He was particularly inspired, he said, by listening to recordings of “Porgy and Bess” by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and by Ray Charles and Cleo Lane.
Mr. Steakley, who has been with the company for 17 years, through more than 200 productions, including his tribute to quirky Austin, “Keepin’ It Weird,” said he had been consumed with the plight of Katrina victims, many of whom found refuge in Texas.
“I found myself writing this grant, thinking of all those citizens and the role of government,” he said.
Cast members applauded the concept. “Dave wanted to pay homage to the people who survived New Orleans,” said Marva Hicks, who sings Bess and was Lena Horne’s backup vocalist on Broadway in “The Lady and Her Music.” “I hope the spirit in which we do it captures their spirit of survival.”
In the version licensed for the production, Mr. Steakley said, Gershwin had trimmed some music, verses and recitative, or dialogue, and had completely cut two numbers, “The Buzzard Song” and “I Hate Your Struttin’ Style.”
A fuller version triumphantly toured Europe in 1952 with Leontyne Price as Bess, and Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life. Houston Grand Opera staged a full version in 1976, and in 1985 “Porgy and Bess” finally made it to the Metropolitan Opera.
A 1959 Hollywood version with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge and dubbed singing largely bombed.
But with the rise of the civil rights movement, “Porgy and Bess” was often derided as racially demeaning. The original libretto included an offensive term for blacks that some performers refused to use and was later excised by Ira Gershwin.
Ms. Crosby, who sings with a popular Austin cover band, Rotel and the Hot Tomatoes, said this production was her first exposure to the work, and it took her aback.
“I can’t believe this guy wrote this; we all felt kind of uncomfortable,” said Ms. Crosby, a daughter of Philip Michael Thomas, who played Don Johnson’s sidekick, Detective Rico Tubbs, on the television series “Miami Vice.” But she said Mr. Steakley had been open to tweaks “and did let us change a couple of things.”
Other cast members said the work transcended stereotypes. “We’re beyond that now,” said David Jennings, who plays Porgy — on homemade crutches, not in the traditional goat cart — and has performed on Broadway as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in “Ragtime.”
Cedric Neal, a Dallas actor who brings down the house as the irrepressibly reptilian Sportin’ Life, agreed.
“It’s a snapshot of American history, a representation of our culture,” he said. “I think Gershwin was a brother.”
Ms. Hicks said, “I can relate to this material without being offended by it.”
But she acknowledged some initial artistic qualms. “When my agent called me, I said, ‘I’m not a lyric soprano,’ ” she said.
“ ‘No,’ they said,” Ms. Hicks recalled. “ ‘It’s a different concept.’ ”