BWW Reviews: The Gershwins' PORGY AND BESS Reaches a New Audience

By: Jan. 16, 2014

BWW Reviews: "The Gershwins' "PORGY and BESS" - REACHES A "NEW" AUDIENCE

Music by George Gershwin

Libretto and Lyrics by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward

Lyrics by Ira Gershwin

Based on DuBose Heyward's novel "Porgy"

Libretto adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks Musical Score adapted by Diedre L. Murray Orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke Choreographed by Ronald K. Brown Direction by Diane Paulus

January 14, 2014 at 7:30P.M.

The Gershwins' "PORGY and BESS" opened to a full house at the STRAZ Center's Carol Morsani Hall in Tampa.

"PORGY and BESS", was first performed in 1935 at the Colonial Theatre in Boston and has received several revivals over the years. Now, 79 years after the original premier, is the latest incarnation of a new, slimmed down version, of the opera masterpiece, now a Broadway musical theatre adaptation, reaching a new audience of patrons, who may otherwise never attend an Opera.

The latest production, The Gershwins' "PORGY and BESS", ran on Broadway through September of 2012, playing 322 performances, 17 more than the 1953 revival, making it the longest-running production of "PORGY and BESS" to date. It was nominated for 10 Tony awards winning Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Audra McDonald).

The heartbreaking love story takes place in (the fabled), Catfish Row and Kittawah Island, in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1930's. The scandalous, drug addicted Bess, turns to the brave, yet physically challenged beggar, Porgy; to escape her imposing, abusive lover, Crown.

The lights dimmed and the overture began. The big, symphonic, orchestral sound that I was expecting, was adapted into an essence of the original version. The curtain went up to a minimalistic, unit set and raked stage. "Less is more...", "uh...I don't know about that in this scenario".

I knew at this very moment, that I needed to adjust any preconceived expectations that I had, before the show started. I reminded myself, that this was indeed, a "New" version of the Grand Opera Masterpiece.

The singing began, with the immortal, "Summertime". The score is filled with classic, Gershwin songs including "I Got Plenty of Nothing", "Bess, You is my Woman Now", 'It Ain't Necessarily So", and "I Loves You, Porgy".
After a slow start, the momentum of the show appropriately picked up, building to a powerful finale. The simplistic set design by Riccardo Hernandez, served as a backdrop to an innovative and exhilarating lighting design, by Christopher Akerlind. The use of shadows was particularly impressive and added a great deal to the mood and atmosphere of the piece.

The cast has extraordinary, well trained, operatic voices. However, the challenge that I experienced, (and I am not the only one), was not being able to understand a great deal of the lyrics and dialogue, to the mostly sung performance. As in Opera, it appears that tonal quality (which was exceptional), was prioritized over diction. I only wish there were the projected, captioned libretto, (subtitles used in most operas), allowing the audience to easily follow the script.

That said, there were a few exceptions....

The Men:
Nathanial Stampley gives "life" to his portrayal of Porgy, in an outstanding performance. His rich, baritone voice, is warm and clear; and his diction...flawless. Mr. Stampley's acting was honest, believable...superb. And his rendition of "I Got Plenty of Nothing" was a show highlight.

As the villainous Crown, Alvin Crawford commands the stage. His mere presence demands your attention. Mr Crawford gives an unforgettable, riveting performance. Every move, every word, every lyric was clear and focused. He made lesser known Gershwin songs, "What You Want With Bess" and "A Red Headed Woman", ...memorable.

Kingsley Leggs, as the slimy drug dealer, Sporting Life, added much needed comedy, to the overly dramatic adaptation. Mr. Leggs had a finely mastered, musical theatre quality, that the audience openly embraced. His underplayed, clear, musical theatre vocals, made him stand-out among the other cast members. He had a smooth delivery, never pushing his vocals or his comedy...he just let it happen...and it did. His renditions of "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon", were highlights.

I must mention the fine acting and vocally stunning voice, of David Hughey as Jake. I understood every word he spoke and sang. Mr. Hughey gave a most impressive, memorable performance.

The Women:
I had the most difficulty understanding the majority of women in this production; in both lyrics and spoken dialogue.

In the enormously challenging role of Bess, is the lovely and talented Alicia Hall Moran. She perfectly cast, physically for the demanding acting and singing required in the role. With her powerful voice, Ms. Hall Moran gives a highly dramatic interpretation in her portrayal. Ms Hall Moran has a beautiful voice; a heavy, equally dramatic, dark, covered, mezzo-soprano. In Act 2, when Ms. Hall Moran approached a lighter, brighter sound, (traditionally found in the role of Bess' ), in the Summertime" reprise, and in "I Loves You, Porgy", each lyric was perfectly clear, her voice angelic.

Sumayya Ali made a lovely, Clara, with a vulnerability that immediately endeared her to the audience. Her singing voice sounded, suppressed; which may have possibly been an "acting choice".

Denisha Ballew as Serena was impressive in her acting, and she has a beautiful vocal instrument, especially in "My Man's Gone Now".

Danielle Lee Graves, was a stand-out dramatically and vocally, as Mariah; especially in "I Hates Your Strutting Style".

The ensemble voices were glorious. The choreography by Ronald K. Brown was effective and performed well. The staging by director Diane Paulus was minimalistic, reminiscent of most operas where the vocalists stand and sing and act in overly dramatic scenes.

After intermission, there were unfortunately, noticeably empty seats. At least a dozen patrons mentioned to me either during intermission or after the performance, that they had difficulty understanding the lyrics and dialogue, and that it diminished their enjoyment of the production.

Some of this could be a sound issue, as the orchestra, occassionally overwhelmed the vocalists and Ms. Hall Moran's amplification drowned out Mr. Stampley, during "I Loves You, Porgy". I am certain this was an "opening night" sound glitch and will be easily balanced and resolved.

By all means GO SEE THIS PRODUCTION. The voices are amazing! In addition, you may never have another opportunity to experience music of the legendary Gershwins' at their very best, in a multi-award winning production.

My advice would be to read the libretto and listen to the score before you go. Had I done that, I know that I would have enjoyed the production even more than I did. I may just go back to see it again!
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission

(Recommended for ages 12+, contains adult themes)

The Gershwins' "PORGY and BESS" will play Carol Morsani Hall, January 14th- 19th, 2014 at at the Straz Center, 1010 North W.C. MacInnes Place • Tampa, Florida 33602 Tickets: $46.50 - $91.50 and may be purchased by calling 813.229.STAR (7827) or 800.955.1045 outside Tampa Bay, or in person at the Straz Center Ticket Office or online.

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