GYPSY OF THE MONTH: J.D. Webster of 'The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess'
Following a $75 million, 1½-year renovation, New York's historic City Center reopens later this month with a gala production directed by Kathleen Marshall. Among those slated to appear in the Oct. 25 gala are Barbara Cook, who starred in several musicals produced by City Center in the 1950s and '60s; the New York City Ballet, which was founded at City Center in 1948; the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a City Center resident company since 1972; and Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy and Brian Stokes Mitchell, who've all had memorable roles in the City Center Encores! series over the last two decades. The gala will open with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg conducting The Encores! Orchestra—a nod to City Center's 1943 opening, when then Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia conducted the New York Philharmonic.
J.D. Webster will also be performing in the reopening gala. He may have been in more productions at City Center than anyone else. Last season, the Juilliard alumnus was in both Bells Are Ringing and Lost in the Stars, Encores! No. 16 and 17 for him. Webster's first Encores! show was Cole Porter's Du Barry Was a Lady back in February 1996—during the time he was performing in his first Broadway musical, Show Boat. He did all three shows in the 2007 Encores! season, and five more since then.
Right now, though, Webster also has his sights set on a big opening at another venue in town...Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre, where The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is scheduled to begin preview performances on Dec. 17. He was in the new version of the operatic classic, adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray and directed by Diane Paulus, that just completed its run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., last Sunday and is due to open on Broadway on Jan. 12.
Broadway casting for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess has not been finalized yet, but Webster is expected to continue to portray Mingo the undertaker. That role is one of the things in the Porgy and Bess libretto altered by Parks and Murray's revisions. They combined two characters from the original: Mingo, a fisherman (several men in the ensemble play fishermen), and an undertaker who appears in just one scene. So Webster's Mingo handles the undertaker's duties for Robbins' funeral and is also around for scenes involving the various residents of Catfish Row, the fictional waterfront district of Charleston, S.C., where Porgy takes place. He's in "Roll Them Bones," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," "I Can't Sit Down" and "Oh, Doctor Jesus," among other numbers.
Porgy and Bess is one of George Gershwin's masterworks and arguably the preeminent American opera, but some people feel its portrayal of a black underclass has not aged well. Webster says that concern has been addressed by the book revisions. "It has been very important to this creative team, as well as to the entire company of actors, to find the truth in these people and breathe a reality into the characters," he says. "[According to] research given us by the dramaturgical department, the people of Catfish Row were a specific subset of the African-American community, descendants of the Gullah culture down in that area. There's a great deal about it in the original novel; some of the dialogue [in the novel] is written in the Gullah, or Geechee, dialect." The Gullah background is even reflected in this new production's choreography, Webster says.