Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review of "Porgy and Bess" at the Muny

The cast of "Porgy and Bess"
Photo: Michael J. Lutch
The main thing you need to know about “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is that it's not really the Gershwins' “Porgy and Bess.” Permit me to explain.

“Porgy and Bess” is a 1935 opera with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, and libretto by Heyward, based on an earlier stage adaptation of his 1925 novel “Porgy” about the tragic love triangle linking the crippled beggar Porgy, the brutish stevedore Crown, and the worldly but not very wise Bess. “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is a 2011 musical theatre adaptation of the opera conceived and directed by Diane Paulus with a radically simplified version of Gershwin's score by Diedre Murray and a rewritten book by Susan-Lori Parks that deletes some characters and subplots but leaves the core story intact.

Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy
Photo: Michael J. Lutch
“Porgy and Bess” is a full-scale opera, sung through with a minimum of spoken dialog. Cast in three acts but usually performed in two, it runs over three and one-half hours with intermission. “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is a standard musical, with most of the original narrative music replaced with speech. It runs just over two and one-half hours. “Porgy and Bess” has (depending on how its staged) only one or two real dance production numbers and not many built-in applause breaks. “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” has plenty of both, repeatedly bringing the drama to a halt while the cast poses and the audience claps on cue.

The result is a work that, compared to the original, feels somewhat downsized and diminished. Ms. Murray's musical edits are at best pointless and at worst pernicious, altering Gershwin's original melodies and rhythms in what seem to me to be arbitrary and unnecessary ways.   All of the best-known songs are still there—"Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," "I Got Plenty of Nothing," and "It Ain't Necessarily So," among others—but none of them has escaped some tinkering.  Some of the composer's most innovative ideas, like the orchestral fugue that accompanies the fight in which Crown murders Robbins, have been edited out of existence or, like the vivid musical depiction of the gathering storm in the second act, drowned out by stage business and sound effects.

Denisha Ballew as Serena, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess,
Kingsley Leggs as Sportin' Life
Photo: Michael J. Lutch
William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke's arrangements don't help, replacing Gershwin's inventive orchestration with a generic contemporary keyboard-heavy sound. In addition, the brevity of the individual songs and frequent applause cues kills some of the dramatic momentum that the original creates with its continuous flow of melody.

That's not to say that all of the changes are negative. In Heyward's libretto the residents of Catfish Row often come across as naïve and even simple minded. Ms. Parks has given them a wisdom and dignity that makes them more three-dimensional without substantially changing the story. Some revisions—such as making Bess more actively involved in her own downfall, making Porgy less crippled, or turning Porgy's killing of Crown into an elaborate piece of stage combat involving the entire community—strike me as more questionable, but in general Ms. Parks's contributions add far more than they subtract.

The result is a work that, while dramatically as good as (and sometimes better than) the original, is far less musically interesting. I don't think it serves George Gershwin very well.

That's the bad news. The good news is that this touring company is a strong one, with terrific voices and a fine ensemble of actors—something that, to be fair, you don't always get in the opera world. Better yet, most of the principals have some operatic background, so in some ways this cast combines the best of both worlds. It's a large company—26 members—so I'll confine myself to the leads and supporting performers.

Alvin Crawford as Crown
Photo: Michale J. Lutch
Nathaniel Stampley anchors the ensemble as a dynamic and strong-willed Porgy. Alicia Hall Moran's Bess has all the self-possessed sexuality the role needs, coupled with a strong undercurrent of sadness that makes her tragic downfall credible. Alvin Crawford is a swaggering and arrogant Crown and David Hughey is a warm and loving presence as the doomed Jake, whose desire to create a better life for his child leads to his death in that second act hurricane.

As Serena, Denisha Ballew sings a hair-raising “My Man's Gone Now” while Sumayya Ali's Clara makes a strong first impression in “Summertime.” I don't think it makes sense to turn it into a duet with Jake, but that's a separate issue. Danielle Lee Graves completes the trio of strong supporting women as Mariah, Catfish Row's unofficial spokeswoman and wise elder.

Kingsley Leggs's Sportin' Life is less flamboyant and more physically restrained than is usually the case with this role, which was originally conceived with Cab Calloway in mind and first performed by vaudeville veteran John Bubbles. It's obviously a directorial rather than an acting decision and does result in making the character less comical and more credibly seductive.

Speaking of direction, Ms. Paulus's downsizing might not be to my taste, but her blocking and pacing are first rate. The sets by Riccardo Hernandez replace the original realistic and oppressive tenement block with simple flats painted to suggest doors and windows. That has the advantage of allowing fast scene changes, although it's not always entirely clear where some scenes are taking place unless you already know the story well.

Photo: Michael J. Lutch
The bottom line is that “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is a leaner, more streamlined, and unquestionably non-operatic treatment of a work that's generally regarded as Gershwin's magnum opus. If you've never seen the original or you have and can essentially treat this as an entirely different work, I'd say it's worth seeing. Calling it “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess,” though, strikes me as dishonest, as though the creators wanted the cachet of the Gershwin name without the musical substance that goes along with it. Maybe they should just call it “Porgy and Bess: the Musical.”

“The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” runs through Sunday, July 13, on the Muny's outdoor Stage in Forest Park. The show begins at 8:15 nightly. For more information:

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

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