Downsized “Porgy and Bess” still proves effective at Kravis Center
Billed as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the production currently playing at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach is something less than the opera composed by George Gershwin to a libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Hayward and Ira Gershwin. This is a streamlined two-and-one-half-hour version reconceived by director Diane Paulus as a Broadway musical with the active support and assistance of the Gershwin estate.
For those listeners unfamiliar with Gershwin’s original 1935 score, this edition can serve as a user-friendly primer. All the most familiar numbers are included, some in radically revised orchestrations that cast a new perspective and subtext on the music and lyrics. The audience at the opening on Tuesday night responded enthusiastically to this effective albeit condensed account of Gershwin’s last large-scale work.
Audiences will not get a sense, however, of the scope, depth and ambition of Gershwin’s only opera. He said that Die Meistersinger and Boris Godunov served as models. Like Wagner and Mussorgsky, Gershwin wrote large-scale choral set pieces, the people of Catfish Row (in Charleston, South Carolina) serving as major protagonists. With most of the choral writing shorn here and only a small vocal ensemble employed for the remaining numbers, the piece emerges as more conventional musical theater.
Although the casting is uneven, the production is enjoyable on its limited terms. Most of the most questionable changes in this revised book by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks were dropped during the initial production previews at Boston’s American Repertory Theater. Originally the new book was to have a happy ending with Bess returning to Porgy and Catfish Row and there were to be back stories regarding why the heroine became a prostitute and how Porgy was crippled. Happily these politically correct changes were jettisoned before the Broadway opening.
One very effective change finds Porgy stabbing rather than strangling the villanous Crown, their fight violent and graphic. A major musical miscalculation, however, turns Summertime into a duet for Clara and Jake, diluting the intended effect of this mother’s lullaby for her child. The fact that David Hughey as Jake has very little voice and is the least effective member of the cast further diminishes one of Gershwin’s most memorable melodies.
The cast is a mix of operatic and music theater voices. Walking with a cane and bereft of a goat cart, Nathaniel Stampley is a volatile Porgy with a light Broadway baritone that is several degrees less than the operatic bass Gershwin intended. The spare orchestration of I Got Plenty of Nothing (by William Brohn and Christopher Janke) gives Porgy’s anthem a more foreboding cast.
Alicia Hall Moran is a sympathetic Bess, bringing a tender and poignant side to the heroine. The Broadway production was built around the formidable musico-dramatic talents of Audra McDonald. Moran was McDonald’s understudy and her voice is remarkably similar in timbre, sporting a rich and voluptuous lower register and gleaming high notes.
Kingsley Leggs captures both the sinister qualities and oily charm of Sporting Life and he is a born song-and-dance man. (This is the one role for which Gershwin did not want an operatic voice, originally casting the vaudevillian John W. Bubbles.) Alvin Crawford is a menacing , frightening Crown with a superb bass voice. As Clara, Sumayya Ali’s exquisite soprano shines in the reprise of Summertime, capped by a soft high C. Denisha Ballew’s gutsy version of Serena’s lament My Man’s Gone Now avoids over the top emotional overkill.
Ricardo Hernandez’s sets are spare but effective with a skeletal view of Catfish Row and wide blue sky for Kittiwah Island. Paulus’ fast-paced direction and Ronald K. Brown’s high-stepping choreography are in the best contemporary theatrical tradition.
Deidre L. Murray’s musical adaptation adheres closely to Gershwin’s original except for a jazzed-up It Ain’t Necessarily So. Porgy’s farewell I’m On My Way is particularly effective, beginning unaccompanied with the ensemble only gradually joining in. Dale Rieling leads the twenty-piece orchestra with vigor and idiomatic flair.
This production can serve as a fine introduction to Gershwin’s masterpiece. Neophyte listeners should check out one of the complete recordings to really hear the vast operatic tapestry that Gershwin created, particularly the sets conducted by Simon Rattle and Lorin Maazel.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess plays through Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. kravis.org.
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Fri Jan 10, 2014
at 1:48 pm