BWW Reviews: PORGY AND BESS at the Seattle Opera
Right from the first few notes of the overture, whether you're familiar with the show or not, a musical theater lover's ears will register the familiar lilt of a Gershwin melody reminiscent of "Rhapsody in Blue" and cause you to settle in your seat a little more with a contended sigh. At least that's what happened to this musical theater lover as he ventured just a little outside his normal realm and into the world of opera to catch Seattle Opera's breathtaking production of "Porgy and Bess".
The show, by George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, may be called "Porgy and Bess" but the story reaches so much further beyond just them. We're introduced to the denizens of "Catfish Row" in the early 1920's where the African American fisherman, vendors and families are just trying to meek out a meager living without being persecuted by the white authorities. Jake and Clara (Donovan Singletary and Angel Blue) just want a better life for their newborn son. Robbins (Michael Austin) spends much of his time gambling much to the dismay of his Christian wife Serena (Mary ElizaBeth Williams). Maria (Gwendolyn Brown) is kind of the matriarch of the town and runs the cookhouse. And Porgy (Gordon Hawkins) is a crippled beggar with a huge heart. Enter Sportin' Life (Jermaine Smith) a sleazy seller of "Happy Dust" and Crown (Michael Redding) a charming drunken brute and his girlfriend Bess (Lisa Daltirus) a fallen woman strung out on the "Happy Dust". Crown accuses Robbins of cheating him in a dice game and a fight ensues which kills Robbins causing Crown to go into hiding leaving behind the sullied Bess. None of the other people in town want to have anything to do with Bess, especially the women, but the crippled Porgy takes her in falls in love with her. But when Crown comes back to claim her, he threatens to break apart one of the most tragic love stories in American literature.
Now I have to say I've only ever seen one other opera before so I am not an authority on the art form. But "Porgy and Bess" is about as close as opera and musical theater come to each other and so I ventured beyond the familiar. The show itself we know is brilliant. It's the Gershwins for Pete's sake. Some only know it by a few songs like "Summertime" or "I've Got Plenty o' Nuttin'". But until you've seen the whole show you can't begin to imagine the haunting beauty that is "Porgy and Bess".
So beyond the brilliance of the show, this production is glorious. Blue's opening number of "Summertime" sets the tone perfectly with her soaring voice and only sets up the tragedy even more for when Daltirus reprises it later in the show. And Singletary and Blue are stunning as they portray the new hope of this run down town. Smith and Redding as the villains of the piece are each deliciously despicable in their own way. Redding with his sultry lowness and Smith with his conniving temptations and snake like physicality. Brown tends to steal every scene she's in with her grand, take no prisoners attitude. And Williams' rendition of "My Man is Gone Now" at the funeral brought the entire house to tears. But the show is called "Porgy and Bess" and the title characters do not get overshadowed at all by the stellar supporting cast. Hawkins quiet strength is the perfect compliment for Daltirus' broken innocence and the two create the perfect aching chemistry for these heartbreaking lovers.
Now you may have noticed I haven't said much about the vocal quality of the performers. Well, that's because it all goes without saying as every single person in the show, from principal to chorus, delivers soul shaking vocal performances. This is made even more awe inspiring as none of the performers are miked. Yes, you heard me. In the grand McCaw Hall, there is no amplification so these amazing singers are literally belting to the rafters. Yes the supertitles are still there as with foreign language operas so we're sure to get every word of the story. But for us jaded musical theater aficionados, listening to real voices able to do what they did is a genuine treat.
The production is near flawless. Gorgeously run down set by Michael Scott, lovely costumes by Christina Giannini, amazing lighting by Duane Schuler, and thrilling choreography by Kabby Mitchell III. And all under the magnificent direction of Speight Jenkins and Chris Alexander and conductor John DeMain. For you opera lovers out there, you already know you should be seeing this one. For you musical theater lovers who may not be sure if you want to wander into this unfamiliar world, take it from one of your own and just do it. This is an experience that will stay with me for life.
"Porgy and Bess" performs at the Seattle Opera through August 20th. For tickets or information contact the Seattle Opera box office at 206-389-7676 or visit them online at www.seattleopera.org.
Photo Credits: Elise Bakketun