BWW Reviews: GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS Soars at National Theatre
The most recent version of the famous and often controversial opera, PORGY AND BESS by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin, re-titled as THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS, is now playing at DC's National Theatre through Dec. 29, 2013. The opera, which has garnered scores of awards since its first performance in 1935, has been re-mounted by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge with a creative team including Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the book, and Dierdre L. Murray, who adapted the musical score. THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS opened on Broadway in 2011.
A radiant production filled with transcendently beautiful voices, show-stopping ensemble dance, and heartbreaking emotions, this production of THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS captivates and elevates. An epic struggle of hope and despair, endurance and surrender, this company holds the audience in its hand throughout the 2-hour performance. Like many classic works of world literature, it exemplifies the inherent moral rightness of folklore, a moral rightness that exists outside the complicated legalisms of the dominant culture.
This classic story is set in the fictitious Catfish Row, which is patterned after the black neighborhood of Cabbage Row in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s. PORGY AND BESS features a representation of black American life in a small fishing community, and this representation has itself been a focal point of historical tumult. The opera was conceived, significantly, by the Jewish, New York-based Gershwins based on the novel Porgy by white Southern writer DuBose Heyward and his play, which Heyward wrote with his wife and creative partner Dorothy Heyward. Geogre Gershwin researched the opera in Charleston, drawing from the James Island African-American Gullah community. Issues of racial stereotyping, cultural appropriation, and negative characterizations have fueled the opera's episodic history. The current adaptation, however, has brought a measure of realism in replacing sung recitatives with naturalistic scenes and spoken dialogue, which deepens the resonance of character, and in so doing surfaced the universal human struggles within.
Played to a rousing, full-theatre standing ovation, this production at the National Theatre in Washington, DC, has special significance, Indeed, in 1936, the touring cast of PORGY AND BESS protested the segregation of The National Theatre in DC, which, to its credit, subsequently defied local convention and integrated the audience for the first time in the theatre's history (unfortunately, the National resegregated and did not permanently integrate until 1952).
The story, with its many subplots and reprises of songs and melodies, focuses on the love story of Porgy, a disabled African-American beggar, played with depth and grace by Nathaniel Stampley, who offers respite and unconditional love to Bess, an alluring, high-flying, "happy-dust" sniffing city woman who is with Crown, a hard-drinking, hard-fighting, and ruthlessly controlling stevedore who must go into hiding after killing a fellow stevedore in a gambling brawl.
Despite being initially shunned by the righteous, God-fearing black community of the fishing village, Bess is taken in by Porgy, and slowly these two damaged human beings find a depth of love and acceptance with each other that triumphs over their respective struggles. Indeed, the love between these two unlikely lovers, each with his or her own sorrows, is among world literature's most transcendent and redemptive. We cheer for and ache for their union to endure.
Bess, played by the beautiful Alicia Hall Moran, has a voice that astonishes and imbues Bess with heartbreaking anguish and profound determination. As Porgy, Stampley brings tremendous dignity and resonance to the character's humanity. Despite his physical affliction--which is played utterly convincingly on stage---Porgy triumphs through unconditional love, and for a moment we witness the healing power of the human heart.