BWW Reviews: GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS Soars at National Theatre

By: Dec. 27, 2013
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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.

For a time Porgy and Bess enjoy the bonds of beloved community within this tight-knit village, which itself endures much sorrow. Bess' former lover, Crown, flees to a nearby uninhabited island to escape the white man's law (represented by the dead-pan, spot-on performances of Dan Barnhill and Fred Rose) but-after a happy picnic (and rousing music and dance number) by the townspeople on the island, Bess is detained and assaulted by Crown. She eventually escapes and returns, feverish and delusional, to Porgy, where she is healed by his love and the recuperative power of prayer, led by the deeply religious widow Serena,who is played with strength and conviction by Denisha Ballew with glorious voice.

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley as Bess and Porgy

Eventually, however, we know that Crown will return to claim Bess. He does so during a hurricane that claims the life of one of the village's beloved fisherman, Jake, played with verve and gentle humor by David Hughey. Jake's wife Clara, the celestially-voiced Sumayya Ali (who gave us the stunning opening rendition of the opera's most famous song, "Summertime"), leaves her infant child with Bess and runs into the storm to find her husband. Crown goes into the storm to rescue her, presumably to his certain death as well.

Crown survives, however, and returns to claim Bess. Porgy, armed with a knife from the village's matriarch Mariah--played with resolute wisdom by the graceful and gifted Danielle Lee Greaves---defends his woman, and kills Crown. The white man's law appears again, however, and Porgy is detained for days. During his absence, Bess is again approached by Sporting Life, the local drug dealer---played with snap and sizzle by the delightfully talented Kingsley Leggs---who lures Bess back into her old city life of drugs and glamour. She succumbs, relapsing and---convinced by Sporting Life that Porgy is imprisoned forever---she agrees to join Sporting Life and return to New York. Porgy, however, is eventually released, having withstood his interrogation. Upon learning of Bess' flight to New York, Porgy, armed only with a knapsack, begins his journey to reclaim his Bess, hope his stalwart companion.

THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS has a spectacular libretto and score, including "It Ain't Necessarily So," "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing," "I Got Plenty of Nothing," " Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and "I Love You Porgy," as well as many others that showcase the impressive talents of the touring company, each of whom brings his or her character into sharp relief, and we see a community of distinct and sustaining individuals.

The tight and wonderfully well choreographed ensemble included crisp performances by Kent Overshown as Mingo the Undertaker, James Earl Jones II as Robbins, Sarita Rachelle Lilly as The Strawberry Woman, Chauncey Pakcer as as Peter the Honey Man, and Dwelvan David as The Crab Man. Also included in this compelling company are Roosevelt André Credit, Nkrumah Gatling and Tamar Greene as the Fishermen, and Andrianna M. Clevelend, Cicily Daniels, Nicole Adell Johnson and Soara-Joye Ross as the Women of Catfish Row.

Directed with grace and precision by Diane Paulus, the focus remained on the narrative---the powerful drama of love and redemption. Choreography by Ronald K. Brown was bright and celebratory, with show stopping numbers delighting the audience.

The production elements imbued the production with further elegance. Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez and Lighting Design by Christoper Akerlind deepened the drama and sorrow, with especially haunting shadow effects during several ensemble scenes. Costume Design by ESosa was perfect, conveying a sense of place and time and social station, with Wig/Hair/Makeup Design by J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene adding to the effect. Music Supervisor Constantine Kitsopoulos, Music Director and Conductor Dale Rieling, and Music Coordinator John Miller, as well as the fabulous orchestra brought the music---the orchestrations of which were by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke--triumphantly to life.

A lush return of an American classic that will captivate the entire family.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

Advisories: None

Through December 29, 2013, at The National Theatre at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20004

Tickets and Information: (202) 628-6161 or


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