BWW Reviews: The Gershwins' PORGY AND BESS Has Got Plenty of Plenty
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 Deidre L. Murray/directed by Diane Paulus/Ahmanson Theatre/through June 1
When I last saw Porgy and Bess, it was the Houston Grand Opera Company's Broadway production in 1976 which celebrated Gershwin's work as full-out opera. There was no dialogue, just the complete score. Now in the 2011 production retitled The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, currently onstage through June 1 at the Ahmanson, the opera has been reworked for contemporary audiences and is celebrated as a stage musical with dialogue. As such, the set of Catfish Row has been scaled down and the show streamlined with minute attention to dramatic plot, and with musical changes in orchestrations. However, never fear! The sumptuous music is still on tap. When this new version played Broadway it won two Tonys, one for Best Revival of a Musical and one for Audra McDonald as Bess. The tour at the Ahmanson is blessed to have McDonald's alternate/understudy Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy.
Catfish Row in South Carolina, late 1930s. An impoverished ghetto where summer brings heat and sweat and along with it, violent crime and passionate romance.When Bess' boyfriend Crown (Alvin Crawford) kills Robbins (James Earl Jones II) in a fight after a crap game, Crown conveniently disappears and cripple Porgy shelters Bess, falling madly in love with her.The forces of good and evil collide. Good wins out, as addict Bess goes straight. But evil still rears its ugly head. Porgy will do almost anything to keep his Bess, including murder when Crown returns, threatening to win her back. It's a classic story that is enriched by atmosphere and other dark characters. A vehement storm blows in, creating havoc and change, and Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs) offers Bess a second chance to regain her former life, now in New York, as Porgy is presumably arrested for attempted murder. Porgy goes free due to insubstantial evidence, but Bess has lost her sobriety to the cocaine Sporting Life has given her and flown the coop, leaving Porgy. Of course, he follows her in hot pursuit. Such is the power of love. Good and evil make strange bedfellows.
The addition of dialogue by Suzan-Lori Parks and new orchestrations, adapted by Deidre L. Murray have not made the story any less real, any less gritty. The glorious music drives every character, major or minor, to the ultimate passionate experience. Under Diane Paulus' even and consistently fluent staging and Ronald K. Brown's quick-paced and bright choreography. Stampley and Moran create magic. Sparks fly high as they essay Porgy and Bess' seething love, and...both sing magnificently. Leggs makes a crafty, sleazy Sporting Life and Crawford is the ideal villain as the bold and brazen Crown. Danisha Ballew as Serena and Danielle Lee Greaves are sizzling standouts of the terrific triple-threat ensemble.
Gershwin's "Summertime", "I Got Plenty of Nothing", "Bess, You Is My Woman Now, "It Ain't Necessarily So", "I Loves You, Porgy", "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon" and "I'm On My Way" are enough in themselves to visit and revisit Porgy and Bess. There's something unbelievably tantalizing, thrilling about the entire score that never ceases to mesmerize. ESosa's costumes fit the bill. Riccardo Hernandez' simple sets are somewhat disappointing as far as atmosphere is concerned, but there's enough going on in front of them to make you forget it.
For opera purists, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess may be lacking, but for audiences overall, the excitement of the story, and sensuality & romance are still present ... and the performers, nothing short of sensational.