The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess - An Adaptation of a Musical Treasure

Friday, 2 May 2014, 9:36:00 AM

Beverly Cohn

Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy in the American Repertory Theater's production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Courtesy Photo
Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy in the American Repertory Theater's production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre.

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

South Carolina.

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

than once.

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

stage.

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

ensemble.

*Negro, as in spirituals, was the noun used in the 1930s.

Ahmanson Theatre

601 West Temple Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012

Run:

Tuesday - Friday: 8 pm

Saturday: 2 pm & 8 pm

Sunday: 1 pm & 6:30 pm

Closing: Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tickets: $20-$120

Reservations: www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or 213.972.4400

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