Broad­way vet puts stamp on ‘Porgy and Bess’

South Flor­ida Sym­phony show’s di­rec­tor on a mis­sion

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel & Life - By Michelle F. Solomon Art­burstMi­

Richard Jay-Alexan­der is a ball of en­ergy, hands flail­ing and talk­ing in a rapid stac­cato. He uses the word “in­tense” of­ten, and talks about live theater as if it’s a mat­ter of life and death. “Look,” he says, “when you’re do­ing a big pro­duc­tion, the stakes have to be high, be­cause the stakes are high.”

Most re­cently, Jay-Alexan­der has planted his stake in the South Flor­ida Sym­phony Orches­tra’s pro­duc­tion of “Porgy and Bess.” The Ge­orge Gersh­win-penned mu­si­cal is quite an un­der­tak­ing for the Wilton Manors-based orches­tra, which be­gan as the Key West Sym­phony Orches­tra in Au­gust 1997. True to its name, it plays South Flor­ida with con­certs at three venues for each of its pro­grams: the Adri­enne Ar­sht Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts in Mi­ami, the Broward Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts in Fort Laud­erdale, and the Ten­nessee Wil­liams Theatre in Key West. “Porgy and Bess” will be per­formed Jan. 16 in Mi­ami, Jan. 19 in Key West and Jan. 23 in Fort Laud­erdale.

“I per­son­ally had never heard of the South Flor­ida Sym­phony,” ad­mits JayAlexan­der, who lives in Mi­ami Beach. Last Fe­bru­ary, he went to see singer Liz Call­away, whom he had di­rected in a show at Carnegie Hall, when she was per­form­ing at the Knight Con­cert Hall at the Ar­sht Cen­ter. “And this orches­tra was play­ing be­hind her, and I was like, ‘Holy crap. Why don’t I know about this orches­tra?’ ”

He re­calls an­other “holy crap” mo­ment in the mid­dle of the per­for­mance, when one of the singers on the bill, Neil Nel­son, an­nounced he was go­ing to be star­ring in the orches­tra’s pro­duc­tion of “Porgy and Bess.”

“I went berserk,” he says. “I was like, “Where? How? What?’ ”

Jay-Alexan­der says he be­came a man on a mis­sion. He walked into the af­ter­show re­cep­tion and told Call­away he needed to meet whomever he could talk to about be­ing part of the sym­phony’s “Porgy and Bess.”

“It’s al­ways been one of those bucket-list shows for me to di­rect,” Jay-Alexan­der says.

While he was work­ing in New York as a dancer, singer and ac­tor in the late 1970s, a pro­duc­tion of “Porgy and Bess” changed the tra­jec­tory of his pro­fes­sional life. “One of my first non­per­form­ing jobs was in [Broad­way pro­ducer] Sherwin Gold­man’s of­fice.” It was 1977, and Gold­man was co-pro­duc­ing the first “Porgy and Bess” on Broad­way to use the com­plete score as Gersh­win in­tended it to be heard when he wrote it in 1935. It won Gold­man, di­rec­tor Jack O’Brien and the Hous­ton Grand Opera the Tony Award for Best Mu­si­cal. Jay-Alexan­der be­came a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant for the re­vival. “I went to Paris with that show,” he says, “and I’ve since seen many pro­duc­tions of ‘Porgy and Bess’ around the world.”

Jay-Alexan­der’s pro­duc­ing and di­rect­ing cred­its are vast, and range from run­ning pro­ducer Cameron Mack­in­tosh’s North Amer­i­can op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing dozens of pro­duc­tions of “Les Mis­érables,” to co-di­rect­ing with Bar­bra Streisand all her ma­jor tours and con­cert ap­pear­ances, in­clud­ing her 2016 show “The Mu­sic, the Mem’ries, the Magic,” which was filmed for Net­flix at Amer­i­canAir­lines Arena in Mi­ami.

Jay-Alexan­der was able to get a meet­ing with Se­b­rina Maria Al­fonso, the sym­phony’s founder and con­duc­tor, and Jacque­line Lor­ber, Al­fonso’s wife and the sym­phony’s pres­i­dent and CEO. “We met at Josh’s Deli in Surf­side, and they started telling me what they were up to. I had a ter­ri­ble re­ac­tion to ev­ery­thing they were say­ing,” Jay-Alexan­der says. “I was in dim shock that they be­lieved they could do a fully staged ‘Porgy and Bess’ in a two-week re­hearsal pe­riod. And they were go­ing to put the orches­tra in the pit.”

He told them he could help them take their pro­duc­tion to an­other level: “We can cre­ate a very dif­fer­ent ‘Porgy and Bess.’ ”

Al­fonso says Jay-Alexan­der made her see many el­e­ments that she hadn’t thought of when imag­in­ing the pro­duc­tion. His most im­por­tant sug­ges­tion was that the orches­tra shouldn’t be hid­den in the pit but part of the ac­tion on­stage.

“He had a grand idea of mak­ing the sym­phony part of the drama, which is re­ally go­ing to be dif­fer­ent and unique,” she says.

Al­fonso is not one to shy away from tak­ing chances. Last year, the South Flor­ida Sym­phony Orches­tra col­lab­o­rated with the Martha Gra­ham Dance Com­pany on a world de­but of Gra­ham Com­pany chore­og­ra­phy set to mu­sic by South Flor­ida com­poser Tom Hormel. The new chore­og­ra­phy is now part of the com­pany’s per­ma­nent reper­toire.

Jay-Alexan­der’s the­atri­cal eye fit in with Al­fonso’s wish to not per­form a con­cert ver­sion of the Gersh­win clas­sic. “Ev­ery­one can do that,” she says. “If we were go­ing to do this, if I was go­ing to take this on, I wanted some­thing spec­tac­u­lar to give this im­por­tant work the rev­er­ence it de­serves.”

She en­listed Paul Tate dePoo, who also grew up in Key West, to cre­ate the scenic de­sign. DePoo has de­signed for big-scale Broad­way, re­gional-theater and opera com­pa­nies. “It was a proud mo­ment for me to be able to work with some­one I watched grow up in the sym­phony’s school pro­grams who is now do­ing very well on Broad­way,” Al­fonso says.

DePoo’s de­signs, which will be done us­ing video map­ping, will cre­ate a “whole new op­por­tu­nity” to tell the story, Al­fonso says.

“Porgy and Bess” is set in the 1930s and based on a novel by Du­Bose Hey­ward about an African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood known as Cat­fish Row and the res­i­dents who live there. It, too, was on Al­fonso’s “bucket list” for years. “It’s not only [im­por­tant] as a mu­si­cal piece,” she says, “but im­por­tant as a state­ment about what was go­ing on in this coun­try as far as seg­re­ga­tion.” Al­fonso ad­mits that she can’t wait to raise her ba­ton on open­ing night to con­duct the lush gems in Gersh­win’s score.

“It’s go­ing to be a hy­brid of stag­ing and mu­sic, but the 70-piece orches­tra is the ticket,” Jay-Alexan­der says. “I’m pre­dict­ing two enor­mous cheers in par­tic­u­lar sec­tions of the over­ture ev­ery night when that orches­tra is on­stage.”

The South Flor­ida Sym­phony Orches­tra will per­form “Porgy and Bess” 7:30 p.m. Wed­nes­day, Jan. 16 in the Knight Con­cert Hall at the Adri­enne Ar­sht Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, 1300 Bis­cayne Blvd., in Mi­ami. The sym­phony will also per­form the show 7:30 p.m. Wed­nes­day, Jan. 23 at the Broward Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Laud­erdale. Go to South-Flor­ida Sym­


Neil Nel­son and Brandie Sut­ton star in South Flor­ida Sym­phony Orches­tra’s pro­duc­tion of “Porgy and Bess.”

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