In Review: The Gershwins’ Porgy And Bess

The Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess: The Broadway Musical might be a mouthful to say, but can easily summed up in three words; it’s a hit!

Before I get into all of the details about my somewhat conflicted feelings about this production, (which is playing now till Sunday at The Ordway in St. Paul). I’m going to cut to the chase: Get to The Ordway now and see this show! If this is your first time seeing this piece, you will be in great hands thanks to a lovely cast and a great staging. More to the point it’s a great introduction to one of the most canonical works in American Musical Theatre and American Opera. In fact I will go one step further; I hope young people see this production and are inspired by it to go into theater and/or opera. It’s that vital of a production.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten the important part out of the way, I’ll highlight the big issue that a lot of people (including to a small degree, myself) have had with it. If you can accept the fact that this is an opera that has been adapted for the conventions of musical theater and for voices more at ease on a Broadway stage than an opera house, then you’re going to be just fine. If you can’t accept that, then you’re going to have some problems. To understand what I’m talking about, we need to look at a little history.

Musical Theatre in America has always swung between two different poles: the traditional book-driven musical with dramatic scenes and songs, and operas that take populist musical idioms and use them with operatic conventions. This latter extreme has always played second fiddle in terms of popularity, but it has yielded some of the more daring work created; Marc Blitzein’s opera Regina and his agit-prop folk opera The Cradle Will Rock, Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes, and Elmer Rice’s opera Street Scene, all of the work of Giancarlo Menotti, Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and A Quiet Place, and so on.

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Which brings us to Porgy And Bess. Debuiting on Broadway in 1935, the adaptation by George and Ira Gershwin of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s play Porgy (based on Heyward’s book) was a full blown opera, complete with full orchestra, classically trained singers in the cast (led by the iconic Todd Duncan and Anne Brown in the title roles) and all of the conventions of opera (through-sung recitatives bridging way to full blown arias). What made it so groundbreaking at the time (aside from its attempts at honest portrayals of African-American lives in the slums of the Gullah region of South Carolina) was that musically it took jazz, blues, spirituals, and folk song idioms and reset them within operatic conventions. It’s that fusion that has made the score (which includes such iconic songs as “Summertime,” “I’ve Got Plenty Of Nothing,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Love You Porgy,” and more) not only one of the cornerstones of the Great American Songbook, but has been covered by practically everyone in the worlds of opera, blues, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll (for example – Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Janis Joplin are three of the many iconic takes on “Summertime” out there).

The “controversy” that surrounded this new production is the changes that were made to it to accommodate the conventions of musical theater as opposed to the opera that it is. While I can quibble with the loss of a reciative here and the dropping of a musical passage there, it is clear that this was done with sensitivity and grace. Working with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (of Topdog/Underdog fame) and Obie-winning composer Diedre L. Murray, director Diane Paulus (the revivals of Hair and Pippin on Broadway, Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna) has adapted this work with sensitivity and grace, turning the three-act opera to a tight two-act musical that still keeps all of the zest, fire, and heart of the original in tact. It also helps that Paulus’s production is itself stunningly gorgeous (thanks to scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez and costume designer Emilio Sosa) and has a joyous sense of fleetness and intimacy (thanks to Ronald K. Brown’s joyous choreography).

Porgy and Bess National Tour

It helps that Paulus and company can make their case so winningly thanks to their strong cast. As the licentious yet morally conflicted Bess, Alicia Hall Moran is a revelation; her tangy mezzo-soprano voice is not only technically able to handle all of Bess’s demanding music but Moran’s background in jazz and pop (she is a frequent collaborator of–and married to–jazz pianist Jason Moran) gives her an edge in shading Bess’s songs appropriately. As Porgy, the disabled beggar with the big heart, Nathaniel Stampley has an impressively physical take on the role. And while I wish his voice was a little fuller, he sounds magical when he’s duetting with Moran; their on-stage chemistry is that palpable. I always judge any cast of Porgy and Bess by the strength of the actress playing the role of the morally upright Serena as she has some of the most demanding music in the score and Denisha Ballew more than delivers in the gut-wrenching funeral chorale “My Man’s Gone Now.” Other standouts for me were David Hughley (Jake), Sumayya Ali (Clara), and Alvin Crawford (who does the damn near impossible and manages to humanize the villainous Crown). If there was one performance that was off, it was the normally fantastic Kingsley Leggs as the duplicitous drug dealer Sporting Life; while he sings and acts the role beautifully (and turns “It Ain’t Necessarily So” into a show-stopper) and is charismatic on stage, there’s never any sense of dangerous unpredictability that is so vital to the character, especially in his eleven o’clock number “There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York.”

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All in all, The Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess: The Broadway Musical might be a more populist take on what could easily be The Great American Opera, but thanks to sharp and sensitive work from the cast and the production team it has transcended its status as a mere adaptation to a must-see theatrical event.

The Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess:The Broadway Musical continues at the Ordway nightly through Sunday, March 30; click here for tickets & showtimes.

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PS: As a means of comparison, try and track down the DVD of the 1993 TV video of Porgy and Bess that the BBC commissioned of the opera (which aired here in the U.S.). Based on the production that director Trevor Nunn did for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and shot entirely on a soundstage, the film brings a healthy dose of realism to the proceedings. It also features the full score; brilliantly conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and featuring stirring performances by Willard White (Porgy), Cynthia Haymon (Bess), Gregg Baker (Crown), Cynthia Clarey (Serena) and Damon Evans (Sporting Life). It’s a great production of the opera and shows it off in the best possible light.

Photo Credits: Michael J. Lutch

Originally Published on 28 March 2014 for l’étoile.

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