BWW Reviews: The Muny's Intoxicating Production of THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS

July 9
10:24 PM 2014
BWW Reviews: The Muny's Intoxicating Production of THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS

Though the weather was stormy on the opening night of the MUNY's presentation of the American Repertory Theater's 2011 update of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, and believe me I drove through some heavy downpours as I made my way to Forest Park, somehow the rain held off and allowed this wonderful show to proceed. Purists have been in an uproar over the fact that the original show has been altered, and while I certainly understand what all the fuss was about, there's no denying the fact that this new interpretation is a moving and compelling production that's definitely a winning crowd-pleaser.

The changes that have been made to the work include Suzan Lori-Parks' book (originally written by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward) that turns the recitatives into dialogue, alterations to the musical arrangements by Diedre L. Murray, and a new, almost minimalist staging by director Diane Paulus. What remains is still an entertaining and engaging show that focuses our attention on the lives of a group of African Americans who live in the fictitious Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina during the 1920's. And, keep in mind that this adaptation was approved by the Gershwin and Heyward estates, even if it's now more of a folk musical rather than a folk opera as originally envisioned.

A terrific touring cast brings these characters to life, and includes Nathaniel Stampley (the disabled Porgy) and Alicia Hall Moran (Bess) as the title characters. Both possess rich voices that are perfectly suited to the memorable score, and numbers like "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You Porgy" simply sparkle in their more than capable hands. Summaya Ali, as a young mother named Clara, along with her fisherman husband Jake (played by David Hughey) kick off the evening with the classic "Summertime", and it's a moment that sends chills down your spine with its gorgeous melody. Kingsley Leggs adds a spark as resident drug dealer Sporting Life, who delivers the blaspheming "It Ain't Necessarily So". Other standout performances are provided by Alvin Crawford (as Crown, the man who doesn't want to give up Bess), Denisha Ballew (Serena), Danielle Lee Greaves (Mariah), Kent Overshown (Mingo, the undertaker), and James Earl Jones II (Robbins).

Director Diane Paulus makes good use of the MUNY's expansive stage, and is aided in her efforts by the choreography of Ronald K. Brown, and Dale Reiling's nicely rendered music direction. Robert Mark Morgan adapts the scenic design in a way that really enhances the story without drawing focus from it, and Rob Denton's lighting scheme adds immeasurably to the overall mood and atmosphere.

You won't want to miss this stirring production of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at the MUNY in Forest Park, which plays through July 13, 2014. Even if you prefer the operatic version, you'll find plenty to love about this new presentation, which actually brings the story to a new generation with a great deal of heart, and an absolutely enthralling score.

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