We loves you, Porgy and Bess!
|Court Theatre presents|
|Porgy and Bess|
|Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3 | tickets: $10-$55 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.
However, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.
Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.
Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.
While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”
Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.
Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.
Alexis J. Rogers (Bess), Todd M. Kryger (Porgy), Bear Bellinger (Peter), Sean Blake (Sportin’ Life), Wydetta Carter (Maria), Matt Holzfeind (Archdale), James Earl Jones II (Crown), Joelle Lamarre (Lily), Brian-Alwyn Newland (Robbins), Harriet Nzinga Plumpp (Clara), Kelvin Roston, Jr. (Jim), Bethany Thomas (Serena), Travis Turner (Mingo), Adrienne Walker (Annie), and Byron Glenn Willis (Jake).
creative and production team
Charles Newell (director); Doug Peck (music director, new orchestrations); Elizabeth Doran (asst. music director); John Culbert (scenic design), Jacqueline Firkins (costume design), Brian H. Scott (lighting design), Joshua Horvath (sound design); Drew Dir (resident dramaturg); Martine Kei Green (dramaturg); Sara Gammage (production stage manager); William Collins (stage manager); Ron OJ Parson (artistic consultant); Cristin Carole (movement consultant); Travis A. Jackson (music consultant), Michael Brosilow (photos)
|Photos by Michael Brosilow|