BWW Reviews: Reimagined PORGY AND BESS at 5th Avenue Feels Unfocused and Rushed

BWW Reviews: Reimagined PORGY AND BESS at 5th Avenue Feels Unfocused and Rushed
Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley in
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
Photo credit: Michael J. Lutch.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A motto to live by. That is, apparently, unless you're Diane Paulus who knows better than the original creators of "Porgy and Bess", currently playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre, on how it should be told. Sure, it's mostly the same basic story but with the pared down script and cast and the re-orchestrated music it feels like "Porgy and Bess Lite" rather than "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" as they call it. And don't even get me started on that title. Enough has been said on that already.

But back to the show. It's Catfish Row in South Carolina in the 1930's and the denizen's are eeking out whatever lives they can. But when the violent Crown gets into a fight with one of the locals and kills him, he must flee and leave his drug-addled wife Bess (Alicia Hall Moran) behind to fend for herself. The townsfolk want nothing to do with this wanton woman but in comes Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), a crippled beggar, who shows her some kindness and takes her in. The two, of course, fall in love but their new relationship is threatened when Bess' past comes back to haunt her.

That's all you really need to know as the other characters have been gutted so much from the original story as to make them almost incidental. And this gutting of the story makes it not only much simpler but much less powerful. And the new orchestrations trying to make it more like a musical than an opera and lighten everything up just kill the tone and stakes of the piece. Sure it's much shorter but also rushed. Bess' rehab happens in about 2 minutes off stage. We have no reason why Porgy falls for her except that he's lonely. Her relapse is then no big surprise or very tragic. And the entire storyline with Clara and Jake has so much less resonance.

The cast does a fine job with what's left of the show. The voices are soaring and gorgeous. Stampley is completely sympathetic and lovable as the stalwart Porgy. Moran has some fine moments but I didn't as much feel the commitment to her character as I did from Stampley. Kingsley Leggs as the drug dealing Sporting Life does a fine job with his role but again with the changes there's so much less of him. But really the same goes for all of the supporting characters who feel superfluous now.

The staging and choreography too feel quite lackluster. If you're going to turn this into a musical with dance numbers, them make them good but they all just feel tacked on and unfocused. So no, I'm not a fan of this new version especially after catching the gorgeous version of the original Seattle Opera did a few years back. And so with my three letter rating system I give the show a great big NAH but also want to throw a little WTF Paulus' way.

"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through June 29th. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at

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From This Author Jay Irwin

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