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The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Book Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, Musical Score Adapted by Diedre L. Murray
Directed by Diane Paulus
The Muny
July 7, 2014

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley (center) with the cast of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess Photo by Michael J. Lutch The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess National Tour

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley (center) with the cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess National Tour

The Muny hasn’t hosted a national touring production for a very long time. While Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, in his notes in this week’s program, promises that this won’t become a regular occurrence, he couldn’t pass up the chance to present this particular production, the national tour of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, in the Muny setting. Although I do think the production suffers a little bit in that it’s obvious that it wasn’t designed to fit in this unique and gigantic performance space, for the most part I would say it’s a memorable performance with a very strong cast that does justice to the show’s memorable  score.

This version of the show is an update of the classic Gershwin opera. Director Diane Paulus worked with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to adapt the story into more of a modern musical theatre format, with more spoken dialogue and a streamlined plot. Although it was a source of much controversy before it opened on Broadway, it eventually garnered multiple awards and nominations It tells the story of the residents of Catfish Row, a poverty-stricken African-American fishing community in Charleston, SC. After an atmospheric opening featuring the classic song “Summertime”, the story focuses primarily on the conflicted Bess (Alicia Hall Moran), a drug-addicted young woman in a volatile relationship with the burly, violent dock worker Crown (Alvin Crawford). Bess is looked down on by the people of Catfish Row until she forms a bond with the gentle-hearted Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), a disabled beggar who has previously admired Bess from afar and who seems to be the first person in Bess’s life who treats her with dignity..  Meanwhile, the smooth-talking drug dealer Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs) tempts Bess with “happy dust” and offers of a more extravagant life in New York. After violence breaks out at  a crap came, Crown flees from the law and Bess tries to start a new life with Porgy and seeks the acceptance of the others in the community, only to be continually haunted by her past and by situations that threaten the the well-being of Bess, Porgy and those around them.

This production serves as something of a window to another era in American history, trying to bring the more stylized elements of the opera into more of a realistic presentation and showing the struggles and the hopes of its characters.  The close-knit community has its leaders and its outcasts, and the overall picture of life in an African-American community in the segregated South in the midst of the Depression is portrayed with detail in the characterizations on more of a stylized set.  I haven’t seen the full-length opera so I can’t compare directly, although this production does retain some of the operatic scope, particularly in the sweeping musical arrangements played with vigor and emotional depth by the wonderful Muny orchestra conducted by Dale Rieling. The costumes by Esosa are richly detailed and add to the overall period atmosphere. The set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez is more abstract, with a simple framework of painted flats surrounding a wooden platform where most of the show’s action takes place. Designed for the national tour, this set is the closest thing this production has to a real problem, since it is simply dwarfed by the enormous Muny stage and often gives the show a confined, boxed-in and occasionally detached quality, like the audience is watching the show on an oversized TV. This quality improves a little bit in the picnic scenes that take place on a nearby island, in which the back wall of the “frame” is removed and the Muny’s scenery wall is shown displaying a backdrop of clouds, framed by the real trees the frame the stage and provide more of a sense of openness.

Still, even with that one minor drawback, the overall production is a remarkable success.  The singing is simply glorious, with a strong ensemble and outstanding performances from the leading performers.  As the determined Porgy, Stampley is the emotional anchor of this production, with a soaring voice and a strong stage presence. He projects a palpable sense of decency and quiet strength, with that ever-present love for Bess that defines his character. Stampley and Moran’s scenes together are among the highlights of the show, such as the intensely emotional “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy”. Stampley also displays warmth and energy in his well-known song “I Got Plenty of Nothing”. Moran is a memorable Bess, as well, with a strong voice and complex characterization.  The other real standout in this production is Leggs as the slick, cynical Sporting Life.  His rendition of the comic ode to skepticism “It Ain’t Necessarily So” early in the second act is a showstopper, and he’s also at his wheedling, smarmy best in “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon” later in the show.  There are also excellent performances by Denisha Bellew as the grieving widow and local faith healer Serena, Crawford as the suitably menacing Crown, and by Danielle Lee Greaves as the good-hearted and strong-willed community matriarch Mariah.  It’s a very strong cast with too many great voices and performances to mention, with some memorable production numbers and strong dancing, as well. It’s a memorable performance of a classic show that’s brought more into an accessible scale, with its many familiar songs resonating throughout the Muny performance space with vibrancy and honesty.

Overall, I’m very glad that the Muny chose to bring this production to its stage, even despite the obvious fact that it’s not properly scaled for the size of the colossal stage. I think that sense of confinement would be an issue with any production that is not specifically designed for the Muny, though.  Still, for the most part I would call this production a resounding success.  I still have the melodies of the wonderful score playing in my head as I write this review.  It’s a vibrant update of a well-known work, with a lot to think about and many strong performances to remember.

Danielle Lee Greaves, Kingsley Leggs Photo by Michael J. Lutch The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess National Tour

Danielle Lee Greaves, Kingsley Leggs
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess National Tour

 

 

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