Black History Month – PORGY & BESS at Robinson Auditorium

porgy-bess-robinsonOn December 6, 1943, one of the great love stories of the 20th Century came to Robinson Auditorium.  Cheryl Crawford’s Broadway revival of PORGY & BESS was presented for one performance.

The show was on a national tour after having played Broadway in 1942 and 1943.  The cast included Todd Duncan, who had originated the role of Porgy in 1935 and Etta Moten, for whom George and Ira Gershwin had originally written the part of Bess.  Avon Long played Sportin’ Life (as he would for much of his long career).  The Eva Jessye Choir was the chorus, as they had been for the original 1935 Broadway debut and were in the 1942 and 1943 Broadway revivals.

Conductor Alexander Smallens had been associated with the title since its 1935 debut. The design team of Herbert Andrews (settings) and Paul Du Pont (costumes) had been brought to the project in 1942 by producer Crawford.

This production of Porgy & Bess eliminated some of the singing and changed most of the recitatives to spoken dialogue. It made it less like an opera and more like conventional musical theatre.  While it may not have been true to George Gershwin’s original intent, it was financially more successful than the original production.  In fact, the Crawford version played Broadway in 1942, 1943, and 1944, with national tours after each of the stops on the Rialto.

In 1942, the cast of the revival had performed a one hour version on radio. This was recorded and released, making it one of the first original cast recordings of a Broadway production.

Based on the play by DuBose and Dorthy Heyward,  George Gershwin envisioned Porgy & Bess as an American opera. It had a libretto by DuBose Heyward, who also supplied lyrics along with George’s brother Ira.  While the original production seemed to have slightly confounded critics and audiences who were expecting something more along the lines of the breezy Gershwin shows of the 1920s and early 1930s, it has proven to be a durable title.  It fell out of favor in the 1960s and early 1970s as the Civil Rights movement was causing people to rethink the depictions of African Americans.  In 1976, the Houston Grand Opera staged a new production which restored most of Gershwin’s score and returned it squarely into the realm of opera.  This production played Broadway in 1976 (and won the 1977 Tony for Best Revival) and was revived in 1983 on Broadway.

The most recent notable production of Porgy & Bess originated at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre in 2011.  It officially opened on Broadway in January 2012 (where Little Rock native Will Trice was one of the producers).  In addition to winning the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, it captured a Tony for Audra McDonald’s performance of Bess (Miss McDonald’s fifth Tony).

Black History Month – Lawrence Hamilton and Robinson Center

LawrenceHamiltonAnother notable former Little Rock performing artist who is memorialized at Robinson Center is Lawrence Hamilton.

The son of the Dr. Oscar and Mae Dell Hamilton, he was born in the small southwest Arkansas town of Foreman With an interest in music stemming from childhood, Hamilton earned a music scholarship to attend Henderson State University in Arkadelphia where he studied piano and voice He graduated in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in music education.

From Arkansas, Hamilton traveled to Florida to work as a performer at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida where he would meet talent manager, Tommy Molinaro. This fateful meeting would prove to be a life-changing encounter, as Molinaro would invite Hamilton to come to New York to audition for the famed actor/director Geoffrey Holder. This marked the beginning of Hamilton’s bold and creative career in the performing arts, leading to performances on Broadway and on tours in Sophisticated Ladies, The Wiz,Uptown – Its Hot, Porgy and Bess, Big River, Play On!, and Jelly’s Last Jam among others. Perhaps his crowning achievement was starring in Ragtime.

Hamilton has been a member of the Southern Ballet Theater, Brooklyn Dance Theater, Ballet Tap USA, and the Arkansas Opera Theater He has performed in concert with the legendary Lena Horne at the White House for President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, and at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II. Hamilton’s career also led to a stint as musical director for the renowned opera legend Jessye Norman, as well as vocal coach/arranger for the pop group New Kids on the Block

Upon his return to Arkansas, Hamilton served for several years as director of choral music at Philander Smith College. He also appeared in several plays at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and made numerous appearances on the stage of Robinson Center with the Arkansas Symphony and other groups.  In addition, he performed at countless concerts, benefits and galas throughout Arkansas.  In 2003, he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2008, he was appointed to the Little Rock Mayor’s Task Force on Tourism.

Hamilton died in New York in April 2014 due to complications from surgery.  Just weeks prior to the surgery, he had appeared in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson in Cape Fear, North Carolina.  He had also starred in that play at Arkansas Rep a few years earlier.

RobinsoNovember: Lawrence Hamilton

LawrenceHamiltonAnother notable former Little Rock performing artist who is memorialized at Robinson Center is Lawrence Hamilton.

The son of the Dr. Oscar and Mae Dell Hamilton, he was born in the small southwest Arkansas town of Foreman With an interest in music stemming from childhood, Hamilton earned a music scholarship to attend Henderson State University in Arkadelphia where he studied piano and voice He graduated in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in music education.

From Arkansas, Hamilton traveled to Florida to work as a performer at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida where he would meet talent manager, Tommy Molinaro. This fateful meeting would prove to be a life-changing encounter, as Molinaro would invite Hamilton to come to New York to audition for the famed actor/director Geoffrey Holder. This marked the beginning of Hamilton’s bold and creative career in the performing arts, leading to performances on Broadway and on tours in Sophisticated Ladies, The Wiz,Uptown – Its Hot, Porgy and Bess, Big River, Play On!, and Jelly’s Last Jam among others. Perhaps his crowning achievement was starring in Ragtime.

Hamilton has been a member of the Southern Ballet Theater, Brooklyn Dance Theater, Ballet Tap USA, and the Arkansas Opera Theater He has performed in concert with the legendary Lena Horne at the White House for President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, and at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II. Hamilton’s career also led to a stint as musical director for the renowned opera legend Jessye Norman, as well as vocal coach/arranger for the pop group New Kids on the Block

Upon his return to Arkansas, Hamilton served for several years as director of choral music at Philander Smith College. He also appeared in several plays at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.  In addition, he performed at countless concerts, benefits and galas throughout Arkansas.  In 2003, he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2008, he was appointed to the Little Rock Mayor’s Task Force on Tourism.

Hamilton died in New York in April 2014 due to complications from surgery.  Just weeks prior to the surgery, he had appeared in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson in Cape Fear, North Carolina.  He had also starred in that play at Arkansas Rep a few years earlier.

Arkansas Heritage Month – Tony Awards nominations with Will Trice

Trice at the 2014 Tony Awards

Trice at the 2014 Tony Awards

Trice at last year's Tony Awards (photo by Lisa Pacino)

Trice at 2013 Tony Awards (photo by Lisa Pacino)

The Tony Awards nominations were announced today.  Little Rock native Will Trice picked up his eighth nomination as a Broadway producer with year’s nod for the revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

Trice has earned previous Tony nominations for producing the plays All The Way* and Wolf Hall; play revivals The Best Man, The Glass Menagerie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?*, and You Can’t Take It With You; and the musical revival Porgy and Bess*.  (An * indicates a Tony win.)

This season, Trice was a producer of four different shows: Sylvia with Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford; China Doll with Al Pacino; Fiddler on the Roof with Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht and Ben Rappaport; and American Psycho with Benjamin Walker and Alice Ripley.

Tony Awards Week – Will Trice

Trice at the 2014 Tony Awards

Trice at the 2014 Tony Awards

Though he has been referenced in every Tony Awards Week story this week, today’s entry is devoted to three time Tony winning producer Will Trice.

It is fitting he is a young, Tony winning Broadway producer.  When his mother, Little Rock actress and teacher Judy Trice, was pregnant with him, she was directing the Hall High production of The Pajama Game.  The original Broadway production of that title was produced by another young, Tony winner – Hal Prince.

Will Trice literally grew up on stage and backstage. In addition to his mother, his late father Bill Trice and his sister Kathryn Pryor have graced every conceivable stage in Central Arkansas.  Will, himself, has been an actor and entertainer.  Most recently, he and Kathryn performed their cabaret act for patrons at the Arkansas Arts Center’s Tabriz earlier this year.

Trice’s Tony Awards came for the 2014 Best Play All the Way, 2013 Best Play Revival Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the 2012 Best Musical Revival Porgy and Bess.  He also received a nomination for 2012 Best Play Revival for The Best Man.  At the 2014 Tonys, of the 26 awards presented, seven went to shows produced by Trice and his producing partner Jeffrey Richards.

This year Trice is nominated for producing Best Play nominee: Wolf Hall Parts One and Two and Best Play Revival nominee: You Can’t Take It with You.  Between those two productions and a revival of The Heidi Chronicles, Trice-produced projects earned fourteen Tony nominations this season.

Not ones to rest on their laurels, Richards and Trice have already announced revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and Sylvia for the 2015-2016 season.

It was fitting that Trice, a 1997 graduate of Central High, was a producer of the Tony-winning 50th anniversary revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2012/2013.  Ben Piazza, a 1951 graduate of then-Little Rock High School, was involved in the development of the play in 1962 and performed in the original Broadway production over 500 performances.

Robinson Redux March

Blackstone adWhile Robinson Center Music Hall is closed for renovations, the Culture Vulture blog is taking a look back at previous bookings in the facility each month.

March 1940 was the first full month that Robinson Auditorium was open.  The month started with Blackstone the magician in performances from March 2 through 4. In addition to his appearance touted by the auditorium, Muswick Beverage & Cigar Company promoted his appearance, and the fact that he endorsed Budweiser beer.  Later that month, appearances included the Shrine Circus, the AAU girls basketball championship, and the Saint Louis Symphony.

March 1950 was a particularly busy month. It featured singer Vaughn Monroe on the 6th and the Arkansas State Symphony playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the 7th.  On the lower level, a circus took up residency from the 7th through 10th.  Back upstairs in the music hall, Ballet Theatre visited performing Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” featuring ballerina Nora Kaye and conductor Max Goberman.  The month concluded on the 27th with James Dunn starring in the Pulitzer Prize winning Harvey.

In 1955, Jose Greco and His Spanish Dancers entertained audiences on March 7. Five years later, the Chicago Ballet was featured on March 26, 1960. Earlier that month (the 16th), Max Rudolf conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. March 1965 feautured the Chicago Opera Ballet (on the 2nd) and an evening of country music stars including Buck Owens and Kitty Wells (on the 10th).

In March 1970, the national tour of the Broadway musical Mame starring Sheila Smith launched the month on the 6th and 7th. Later that month The Florida Boys were in concert. March 1975 saw much activity at Robinson Center. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra appeared on the 2nd and Richard Fredricks, baritone, gave a recital on the 4th, under the auspices of the Community Concert Series. On March 5 & 6, a statewide touring production of South Pacific played at Robinson. Produced by Vince Insalaco, it starred Judy Pryor (now Judy Trice) as Little Rock native Nellie Forbush. The month closed out with the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof.

March 1980 saw Dawn Wells starring in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two on the 8th. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra performed on the 15th and 16th with pianist Lorin Hollander as guest artist. Five years later, Marilyn Horne appeared with the ASO on March 2, 1985. At the same time that evening, the Shriners Ball was taking place on the lower level. Later that month a national tour of Sophisticated Ladies stopped by Robinson on the 12th. The ASO returned on March 20 & 21 with pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

The Sharks and the Jets lept on the stage on March 20, 1990, as a tour of West Side Story came to Robinson Center. The month concluded with pianist Jose Carlos Cocarelli in concert with the ASO.

Marilyn Horne returned to Little Rock, ten years and one day after her previous appearance, and performed with the ASO again on March 3, 1995. The month also included The Will Rogers Follies on March 10-12, Jazz Explosion II (with George Duke, Dianne Reeves, Phil Perry, Howard Hewett, and George Howard) on March 15, and the ASO in concert with cellist Jeffrey Solow on March 18 & 19. On March 22, the musical Raisin was performed. The cast included Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborne and Lynette Hawkins.

As the 2000s rolled around, Robinson Center continued to feature an eclectic mix. In March 2000, Ann Hampton Callaway performed with the ASO on March 4 & 5. Later that month the original cast of Red, White & Tuna played at Robinson from March 14 through 19. In 2005, the national tour of Mamma Mia! played at Robinson from March 1-6. Later that month the ASO performed Broadway a la Carte with an eveningn of songs from the Great White Way (on March 18 & 19).

In 2010, the ASO performed a concert version of Porgy & Bess on March 12 & 13. It was the first time that title had ever been performed in its entirity in Arkansas. Irish dance took the stage the next night as Lord of the Dance took up residence at Robinson Center.

Black History Month Spotlight – Lawrence Hamilton

LawrenceHamiltonLawrence Hamilton, the son of the Dr. Oscar and Mae Dell Hamilton, was born in the small southwest Arkansas town of Foreman With an interest in music stemming from childhood, Hamilton earned a music scholarship to attend Henderson State University in Arkadelphia where he studied piano and voice He graduated in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in music education.

From Arkansas, Hamilton traveled to Florida to work as a performer at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida where he would meet talent manager, Tommy Molinaro. This fateful meeting would prove to be a life-changing encounter, as Molinaro would invite Hamilton to come to New York to audition for the famed actor/director Geoffrey Holder. This marked the beginning of Hamilton’s bold and creative career in the performing arts, leading to performances on Broadway and on tours in Sophisticated Ladies, The Wiz, Uptown – Its Hot, Porgy and Bess, Big River, Play On!, and Jelly’s Last Jam among others. Perhaps his crowning achievement was starring in Ragtime.

Hamilton has been a member of the Southern Ballet Theater, Brooklyn Dance Theater, Ballet Tap USA, and the Arkansas Opera Theater He has performed in concert with the legendary Lena Horne at the White House for President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, and at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II. Hamilton’s career also led to a stint as musical director for the renowned opera legend Jessye Norman, as well as vocal coach/arranger for the pop group New Kids on the Block

Upon his return to Arkansas, Hamilton served for several years as director of choral music at Philander Smith College. He also appeared in several plays at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.  In addition, he performed at countless concerts, benefits and galas throughout Arkansas.  In 2003, he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2008, he was appointed to the Little Rock Mayor’s Task Force on Tourism.

Hamilton died in New York in April 2014 due to complications from surgery.  Just weeks prior to the surgery, he had appeared in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson in Cape Fear, North Carolina.  He had also starred in that play at Arkansas Rep a few years earlier.

For more on Lawrence Hamilton and other inductees into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, visit the permanent exhibit at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. That museum is an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.