The touring Broadway show is an unpredictable animal. On occasion, its legacy in New York may inspire a travelling company to commendable heights of performance. More often, the road show is a pathetic imitation of the original, seriously undercapitalized, inferior in every theatrical category, acting, singing, directing etc. The cynical but implicit premise of most of these productions is that folks in the boonies of Edmonton and Omaha either don't know the difference or don't greatly care. Sadly, the producers are often right.
Consider then the long-running road-show version of the classic 1935 Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess, which opens at the Elgin Theatre on Tuesday for a limited run, after a week in Trinidad and Tobago. I haven't seen the production, but a number of things suggest that it delivers more than one might reasonably expect. For one thing, it's been travelling the world for 13 years, playing to enthusiastic crowds in something like 400 cities -- more than 1,000 performances in all. Second-rate shows can't sustain that kind of run. Indeed, this Porgy has made repeat visits to many venues and continued to impress, both audiences and critics.
For another, the producer and impresario behind it is New Yorker Peter Klein. A specialist in dance, his Living Arts Inc. has taken the work of some of the world's most prestigious ballet companies abroad, including the American Ballet Theatre with Baryshnikov, the Pearl Lang Company, Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the San Francisco Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Klein's is not a name, in short, associated with the easy knock-off.
Certainly, it's a show to which Toronto stage audiences have not been much exposed. Ed Mirvish says he thinks it played here 40 years ago, but there is no record of it.
Klein, who started working in show biz for the legendary Sol Hurok, had already been producing for more than 20 years when a colleague in Buenos Aires asked him to bring a production of Porgy and Bess to South America. He found an opera company in Norfolk, Va., that had recently staged the show and took it south. But doing a little research, he was astonished to find that there had never been a touring production in the United States. He immediately called 25 or 30 American theatres to see whether they'd be willing to host a touring show; all confirmed their interest.
He redesigned it -- eliminating elaborate streetscape sets that he felt constrained the actors' movements, reduced it from three acts to two, and cut what he calls non-essential music from Gershwin's original score, "because most humans have only one derrière and sitting for four hours is too long."
Klein says he has seen at least one such production of the show during which before Porgy sings I'm on My Way, hundreds of people "were on their way -- out of the building."
The current show comes in at just under three hours; all of the cuts were approved by agents of the heirs of the Gershwin estate. All of the cast have both operatic and Broadway experience, but on tour, Klein often alternates the principal roles because the score is so demanding to sing.
He regards Gershwin as "the Mozart of the 20th century" and not only because they both died in their late 30s. "His music is so diverse, and rich, like a magnificent piece of fabric that has all these colours and textures in it. I think it's the music that makes Porgy and Bess so successful."
Now 59, the courtly, soft-spoken Klein seems uniquely well-suited to his role as a global ambassador of the arts. The son of Holocaust survivors, he spent his first 18 years in Transylvania and, as a child, learned Hungarian, Romanian, Russian and German. Life under the Soviet Communist regime was hell, he says, and he studied more languages including French and Spanish, hoping one day to emigrate. Fourteen years after the family applied for an exit visa, they were finally granted permission to go to Israel. There, Klein quickly learned Hebrew and was drafted into the Israeli army just before the Six Day War.
Unable to push tanks up the Golan Heights against the Syrian line, Klein's unit was parachuted behind the Syrian front line. In the ensuing battle, he was shot in the leg and chest and "my fascinating life almost ended there." When he recovered, Klein left Israel for Europe and then New York.
One night, attending the symphony at Carnegie Hall, he met someone who worked for Hurok and arranged an introduction. Klein was immediately hired as a North American tour manager for Andres Segovia, Arthur Rubinstein and others. When Hurok died about five years later, Klein went out on his own, taking American musicals ( West Side Story and A Chorus Line) and ballet to Europe (including the National Ballet of Canada).
Klein continues to be heavily involved in producing dance -- the Joffrey Ballet, Merce Cunningham and the Shen Wei dance arts organization, among others. But he thinks Porgy and Bess can continue to tour indefinitely. He's taking it to Australia for the second time next year, as well as to Italy. "What helped me a lot were the languages," says Klein, who later added a ninth language, Italian, to his repertoire. "I don't take credit for it. It just came because I lived in various parts of the world."
Porgy and Bess plays at Toronto's Elgin Theatre from March 15 to 20 (tickets: 416-872-5555).