BWW Review: PORGY & BESS, West Horsley Place
"Summertime" has just about arrived in the UK, and Grange Park Opera continue their 2019 season with George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy & Bess. The audience is whisked away from West Horsley Place's idyllic setting to Charleston, South Carolina in this production directed by Jean-Pierre van der Spuy.
Porgy & Bess debuted in Boston in 1935 before moving to Broadway and is one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide. Edwin DuBose Heyward's adaption of his 1925 book tells the story of Porgy (Musa Ngqungwana), a disabled beggar, and his attempts to rescue Bess (Laquita Mitchell) from a damaging lifestyle and abusive relationship.
Ngqungwana gives a powerful performance as Porgy, with a warm inner strength of character, despite his physical limitations. Mitchell sweetly delivers Bess' care-free and vulnerable moments.
Sarah-Jane Lewis gives a notably soulful performance as Serena. Her desperate prayers to the Lord for safety over Bess and their community provide a real sense of faith in difficult circumstances.
Robert Winslade-Anderson gives an endearing and lyrical performance as Jake, a fisherman, and Francesca Chiejina gives goosebump-inducing renditions of the opera's big number "Summertime" throughout.
Donovan Singletary is suitably terrifying as Crown, Bess' lover, and Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi's portrayal of Sportin' Life, a drug dealer, is full of charm.
The lush Gershwin score is brilliantly performed by the BBC concert orchestra, conducted by Stephen Barlow. Moments of drama are deftly delivered, be it in fast-moving string passages or the soaring winds and brass.
Lizzie Gee's choreography brings tremendous energy to the lighter moments of the show, with chorus members, thigh slapping and worshipfully swaying throughout the piece.
Francis O'Connor's set design is made up of several large rotating pieces which mimic the interior and exterior of buildings. The use of fragments of corrugated iron, reminiscent of his work for last year's production of Oklahoma!, gives a suitable run-down vibe to the south-eastern port city but on occasion don't have the smoothest transitions between scenes.
The costumes are a feast for the eyes, with the women decked out in colourful tea dresses, the men in more neutral colours, apart from Sportin' Life's brightly patterned suit. David Plater lights the show in gorgeous jewel tones with good use of muted teals when a storm brewed. The colour palette on stage is exceptionally pleasing on the eye.
The story occasionally dwells for too long in certain moments and the production's reasonable choice to combine Acts I and II leaves a relatively short and escalating final Act III.
Attendees of Grange Park Opera productions enjoy the novelty of a "100-minute interval" where they can picnic in the grounds of West Horsley Place, outside the Theatre in the Woods where the show takes place. This format is particularly suited to this production because the cast themselves go on a picnic at the end of Act II.
Grange Park Opera's production of Porgy and Bess is a real treat for the eyes and ears. They have assembled a fine team of cast and creatives to perform the well-loved Gershwin opera.
Porgy & Bess at West Horsley Place until 7 July
Photography credit: Richard Hubert Smith