For those of you who are purists and would prefer to not see this
ground-breaking American folk opera fiddled with in any way, you may
very well have problems with the American Repertory Theater’s version of
“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre.
This production, directed by Diane Paulus, with the book adaptation
by Suzan-Lori Parks, and the musical score adapted by Diedre L. Murray,
takes a somewhat radical turn from the original production, which
premiered to mixed reviews in September 1935.
It was the first opera to draw upon American roots music,
incorporating blues and jazz, infusing the sound with African-American*
spirituals. While being somewhat of a purist myself, I try to be open
to variations on a theme with respect to the artistic interpretation of
old chestnuts and in this case, found the work, while not absolutely
perfect, to be quite exhilarating.
The play begins with the iconic “Summertime,” beautifully sung by
Clara (Sumayya Ali) and Jake (David Hughey) in a setting creating the
tone for the ensuing action, which takes place on Riccardo Hernandez’s
effective replication of Catfish Row, a tenement in a dock area in 1930s
With Christopher Akerlind’s complementary mood lighting enhancing the
range of emotions pouring forth from the stage, it should be noted,
that each member of this truly outstanding ensemble, with highly trained
vocal instruments, could easily sing any kind of music, ranging from
opera to R & B to blues, as demonstrated by their performances in
this compelling production.
The story revolves around Bess, a woman of ill repute with a monkey
on her back and Porgy, a severely crippled man who is in love with her.
Alicia Hall Moran plays this iconic character and does a valiant
acting job, but a rather uneven vocal performance.
She does convey the struggle to stay clean and sober, and her
unhealthy magnetic attraction to the abusive Crown, played by an
imposing Alvin Crawford.
We see her trying to resist the lure of drugs and money dangled
before her by the evil Sporting Life, wonderfully played by Kingsley
Leggs. She desperately sees Porgy as her only salvation.
Nathaniel Stampley gives a stunning characterization of the crippled
Porgy, with his gorgeous, powerful voice bringing the house down more
The narrative is a beautiful, but sometimes tragic love story
illuminating the demons that live inside of all of us, as well as
shining a light on the day-to-day struggles of poverty, loss, and living
under the potential “whip” - metaphorically speaking - of the white man
in the form of a menacing detective played by Dan Barnhill, and Fred
Rose’s equally menacing policeman.
There are funny scenes like Bess applying for a divorce from the abusive
Crown that costs the incredible sum of $2.00, or “Street Cries,” an
amusing musical number wherein The Strawberry Woman (Sarita Rachelle
Lilly,) Peter, The Honey Man, (Chauncey Packer,) and The Crab Man
(Dwelvan David) belt out their songs praising their wares.
There are tragic scenes like the frightening hurricane sequence, when
the seedy Crown returns to claim his Bess, the heart-breaking scene
when Bess bows to her demons, and Serena’s wrenching show stopper “My
Man’s Gone Now,” sung by a most talented Denisha Ballew, whose voice
soared off the stage.
There are so many chestnuts in this production, all of which were
performed to perfection and included, “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing,”
sung by Jake and the Ensemble, Porgy’s “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” the
tug at your heart strings “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” sung by Porgy to
Bess, and Serena’s heart-wrenching show stopper, “My Man’s Gone Now,”
sung by a most talented Denisha Ballew, whose voice soared off the
Other outstanding musical numbers included “Leaving For The Promised
Land” sung by Bess and the Ensemble, “I Hates Your Strutting Style,”
sung by an amazing Danielle Lee Greaves as Mariah, “It Ain’t Necessarily
So,” sung by Sporting Life and the Ensemble, “I Loves You, Porgy,” sung
by Bess to Porgy, and a determined Porgy’s show-stopping “I’m On My
Way,” which once again brought the house down.
Dressed in ESosa’s pastel costumes, the ensemble dance numbers,
choreographed by Ronald K. Brown, took on a decidedly African-tribal
tone, which seemed quite appropriate for this updated version and were
superbly executed by the commanding cast, all of whom are stars.
This production of “Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” crept into the hearts
of much of the audience who became very involved in the story.
For example, when Crown returns to claim Bess, someone seated behind
me muttered, “Damn” and when Bess succumbs to her addiction, there was a
mass “Oh no.”
So, again, despite any trepidation one might have about this
production’s authenticity, it is a rare chance to hear this fabulous
music once again and to enjoy outstanding performances by a remarkable
*Negro, as in spirituals, was the noun used in the 1930s.
601 West Temple Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tuesday - Friday: 8 pm
Saturday: 2 pm & 8 pm
Sunday: 1 pm & 6:30 pm
Closing: Sunday, June 1, 2014
Reservations: www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or 213.972.4400
Copyright © 2011 by Santa Monica Mirror. All rights reserved.