A Bellevue actress returns this week after eight months on the road, as “Porgy and Bess: The Musical” digs in for its 18-day run at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.
“I just look forward to being home,” Cheryse McLeod Lewis said in a phone interview June 3. “I miss my family, I miss my husband. I miss my own bed and house. Friends. It’s been hard being away from them since, basically, October. Not that it hasn’t been wonderful, but there are challenges to living in a hotel.”
Lewis is a swing ensemblist and understudy for the titular Bess in the show’s first national Broadway tour. The tour opened in San Francisco in November and will close in Charlotte, North Carolina — 90 minutes from Lewis’s native Greensboro — in July.
“Porgy and Bess: The Musical” is the 2012 musical theater adaptation of the DuBose Heyward, George and Ira Gershwin folk opera “Porgy and Bess,” itself an adaptation of the play based on Heyward’s novel “Porgy.” The story follows the budding romance between the abused and addicted Bess and the kindly crippled beggar Porgy, against the backdrop of the fictitious South Carolina tenement Catfish Row.
First staged in 1935, the opera produced a number of musical classics like “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” but the story has remained controversial for stereotypical depictions of the Southern black community.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ Broadway adaptation alters what she called, in a March interview with Buffalo News, “less than accurate … images of a group of people,” fully realizes the show’s operatic archetypes as living characters and injects spoken word dialogue into the stageplay. Director Diane Paulus’ production is truncated to 150 minutes and presents the show’s music in their more widely recognizable jazz interpretations. The show won the 2012 Tony award for Best Revival of a Musical.
“The creative team wanted to stress to us (the cast) that this Broadway version is not meant to replace the opera,” Lewis said. “The two are meant to live side-by-side. And this version, I think, is a more accessible experience with the piece for audiences who aren’t familiar with the opera and its story. ”
In her swing role, Lewis is responsible for filling the positions of actors who are sick, on vacation or other leave — sometimes in the middle of a performance. At any given moment, she’s responsible for knowing the lines and blocking of six different performers.
She was able to fill in for Alicia Hall Moran, as Bess, for the first time in a performance during the show’s six-week run in Los Angeles — an incredible experience, she said.
“I like the fact that (the story) talks about redemption and true love,” she said. “Bess starts in an abusive and toxic relationship with another man and she doesn’t think she deserves better. It’s through Porgy that she’s finally able to experience true love and acceptance. She faces her demons … she has to come to terms with how she’s lived her life.”
Lewis is a classically trained opera performer, having graduated in 2002 as one of the first Fletcher Fellows of The University of North Carolina’s A.J. Fletcher Institute. A mezzo-soprano, she has played the title role in “Carmen,” Rosina in “The Barber of Seville” and Prince Orlofsky in “Die Fledermaus” (a role she’s played on both coasts, with the Greensboro Opera and Vashon Opera).
Lewis relocated from North Carolina to Bellevue with her family in 2012. She has performed as a soloist with Orchestra Seattle and Ballet Bellevue.