Theater Reviews

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L.A.Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through May 20

This opera of low life in the low country of Charleston, S.C., has been called many things; for a long time, opera was not one of them.

Written by George Gershwin, with libretto by Du Bose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin, it was initially presented, without much success, as a Broadway musical. Some call "Porgy" grand opera; some classify it as folk opera, or American grand opera, both slightly deprecating its quality.

One critic christened it a hybrid; others spoke of it as an aggrandized musical show. Gershwin himself preferred the term "folk opera" because it was a folk tale in which the folk naturally would sing folk music. Since Gershwin had no formal classical training, there were many sniffy criticisms of his oeuvre, though the general consensus finally arrived at a reluctant conclusion that, in the words of one up-river critic and composer, Virgil Thomson, "Gershwin doesn't even know what an opera is, and yet "Porgy and Bess" is an opera and it has power and it has vigor."

Indeed, "Porgy" has recitative and arias, choral music, dramatic scenes, large-scale production numbers, duets and superb choral writing, real-life characters with real-life emotions, humor, tragedy, splendid characterizations, dramatic power and sympathy ... in short, everything that makes an opera an opera.

Sociologically, however, questions have always been raised about idealizing the lifestyles of the lowest echelon of a black society. In our 21st century politically correct environment, could a project conceived and written by Russian Jewish writers and another white man, DuBose Heyward, fly with the black denizens of an impoverished Catfish Row dangling from its kite tails? A similar opus written by a mainstream writer after the uncovering of an equally impoverished segment of mostly black society by Hurricane Katrina would raise a lot of eyebrows today.

Kudos, therefore, to the success of Gershwin's opera, rooted mainly in its lineup of songs, or "arias," as the opera intelligentsia would have it, songs which have become familiars in the musical comedy, concert and pop catalogs of a musically infused era.

"Summertime," which opens the show -- sung here by Alyson Cambridge (light soprano), from the second cast of "Porgy" (Laquita Mitchell is in the first cast) -- is a well-loved soprano standard, familiar in so many interpretations. "It Ain't Necessarily So," sung by Victor Ryan Robertson (Jermaine Smith in the first cast), is a well-known comedy routine that most people remember even if they don't remember what it's from. "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin", Porgy's I'm-OK-even-if-I-don't-have-a-dime song (a very competent bass-baritone Alfred Walker here; Kevin Short in the first cast) is also a familiar melody, as is "Bess, You Is My Woman now," Porgy's poem to his new lady, and "I Loves You, Porgy," sung in response by Bess.

These arias are so well remembered because they're so well written by a musician who took a high bounce out of Tin Pan Alley to the heights of the Met.

This is a huge production, with an enormous cast of actors, chorus, supernumeraries and musicians. It's a well-populated stage, with characters aplenty. Amazingly, in this crowded community, the individuals -- Crown, the villain in the piece (Terry Cook/Lester Lynch); Maria, keeper of the cookshop (Marietta Simpson); Serena (Monique McDonald/Angela Simpson); Peter, the Honey Man (Timothy Davis Jr.); Frazier, a lawyer (Marvin Lowe); Strawberry Woman (Tammy Jenkins); and Crab Man (Ashley Faatoalia) are just as vivid as the leads.

Credit director Francesca Zambello as well as her actors and singers. Extensive credit also belongs to conductor John DeMain, who coordinates smoothly the moods of Gershwin's mix of gospel, folk, jazz, Broadway show music, Negro spirituals and opera.

It is a show to be experienced, as an opera and as an artifact. I'm sure everything equals out in the long run, but check first to find out which cast is playing.

PORGY AND BESS
Presented by Los Angeles Opera
Credits:
Composer: George Gershwin
Librettists: Ira Gershwin, Dubose Heyward/Dorothy Heyward
Conductor: John DeMain
Director: Francesca Zambello
Associate director: Garnett Bruce
Assistant director: Rita D'Angelo Tikador
Original choreography: Denni Sayers
Choreographer: Jennie Ford
Set designer: Peter J. Davison
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Mark McCullough
Fight coordinators: Charles Currier, Tim Brown, Los Angeles Opera
Concertmaster: Stuart Canin, Los Angeles Opera
Chorus Master: William Vendice
Cast:
Porgy, a beggar: Alfred Walker
Bess: Indira Mahajan
Crown: Terry Cook
Serena: Monique McDonald
Clara: Alyson Cambridge
Maria, of the cookshop: Marietta Simpson
Jake, a fisherman: Eric Greene
Sportin' Life: Victor Ryan Robertson
Mingo: Michael Bragg
Robbins: Barron Coleman
Peter, the honey man: Timothy Davis Jr.
Frazier, a lawyer: Marvin Lowe
Annie: Malesha Jessie
Lily: Amber Mercomes
Strawberry Woman: Tammy Jenkins
Jim: Justin Lee Miller
Undertaker: Perry L. Brown
Nelson: Blaise Claudio Pascal
Crab Man: Ashley Faatoalia
Detective: Edward Edwards
Policeman: Geoff Meed
Coroner: Bart McCarthy
Chorus Solos: Shelia Tate, Leberta Loral, Winter Watson, Aleia Braxton, Voitress Mitchell, Tonoccus McClain, Carver Cossey, DeReau Farrar, Charles Lane, Jenifer Tucker, Dabney Ross, Alphonzo Hicks

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