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Porgy and Bess (the lamentable and disingenuous branding title will not be employed again by this writer) is one of those incomparable works of art that necessarily is always somewhat imperfect in performance. It is too grand, too bold and too lowdown not to be. Straddling the difference between Broadway and the opera house was essentially unprecedented in 1935, and the focus on segregated black life on Catfish Row near Charleston (however infected with problems of Negro dialect onstage that would become more acute through the Civil Rights struggle, until rehabilitated by the brilliant Houston Grand Opera revival in 1976) certainly did not encourage its initial acceptance as High Art, which it most certainly is, as well as popular art and avant-garde art. Neglecting any of these aspects reduces its stature and ambition.
Is it the Great American Opera? Well, on any single day, it’s in the Top Ten, and whatever the other nine contenders are, they all shuffle in and out of the game with card-shark alacrity.
There was a great dust-up in the New York Times pre-opening, when the creative team gave a feature interview peppered with on-message marketing buzzwords that stimulated Stephen Sondheim to write a judiciously expressed letter admonishing the temerity to rewrite the book, and to add scenes and music, under the delusion that these would be corrections of which the original creators would approve. His core example was the loss of Porgy’s immortal climactic line, “Get me my goat!” With their unerring application of political correctness, Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley) saves up for a prosthetic brace to help correct his disability, demands his cane instead and hobbles off to the rear stage curtain, ostensibly more self-reliant and not exploiting any animal. To paraphrase Greta Garbo‘s lament when Jean Cocteau‘s Beast is transformed into a man by Beauty: “Give me back Porgy’s goat cart!” That always makes a transcendent exit, and this rendition doesn’t trust transcendence, which I think ought to be the very point.
The producers and creative team set goals for this new version of the show to make it an audience-friendly slick musical ostensibly with motivated characters rather than archetypes and to give them the most musical and dramatic comfort the vehicle could afford. The Estate may have wanted to extend its grip longer: George Gershwin‘s musical copyrights have essentially expired, as will those of author-lyricist DuBose Heyward next year. And though brother and genius lyricist Ira Gershwin lived until 1983, he did not write many of the best lyrics, including those for “Summertime,” ASCAP notwithstanding. Indeed, Heyward wrote not only the acclaimed source novel, but also with his wife, Dorothy, the hit play adaptation, nearly all of which serves as the libretto for the opera.
In any event, this production achieves everything it set out to do, for good or ill. It’s often great, just always too timid to reach higher more often, a softer, more masticated Porgy and Bess. At its best, the relationship between Porgy and Bess (Alicia Hall Moran) does achieve a romantic intensity that is uncommonly achieved, so that the several iterations of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” are actually the high points of the evening. Both leads sing like dreamboats despite their downtrodden states. The pruning and rewriting have added some dimension to the villain Crown (Alvin Crawford), thereby more forcefully highlighting the competing embodiments of masculinity between the two men. On the other hand, where Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs) would routinely steal the show with his charismatic and seductive insights into human weakness, here he is reduced to a drug-peddling snake without redeeming charms or potent counter-argument.
But as fine a playwright as Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog, Fucking A) cannot make her patchwork-mending blend in the established stitchery, and the new scenes resound with a corrective purpose at odds with the character of the original. And while music adapter Diedre L. Murray is a top-drawer innovator as a cellist and composer, especially in her inspired work with Fred Hopkins, Henry Threadgill and Muhal Richard Abrams, her own passages, while grounded in an ear that doesn’t disrespect the Gershwin original, never sounds idiomatically close to the well-known score: One can always hear the difference even if doesn’t jar. I choose to fix stronger blame, then, on the orchestrators, who have thinned out the more complex orchestral interplay for a capable pit band, which tends to rush the tempo (not such a bad thing in itself), but end up with a bland reduction that is neither jazzy nor classical enough, when it should be both at once.
Notwithstanding its Tony Award for Best Revival, it would be a gross pity if this were to become the standard performing version, with its condensations, cuts and interpolations, rather than simply another interpretation that would not preclude either more conscientious or more daring attempts. Porgy and Bess can accommodate many disparate takes, and if you’ve never seen it before, this can be as good a place as any to start, with plenty of room for even better ones in future.
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Center Theatre Group, downtown L.A. (runs through June 1)
Cast: Alicia Hall Moran, Nathaniel Stampley, Kingsley Leggs, Alvin Crawford, Sumayya Ali, Denisha Ballew, Danielle Lee Greaves, David Hughey, Dan Barnhill, Fred Rose, Kent Overshown, James Earl Jones II
Director: Diane Paulus
Book & Lyrics: DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin, adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks
Music: George Gershwin, musical score adapted by Diedre L. Murray
Orchestrations: William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke
Choreography: Ronald K. Brown
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Costume designer: ESosa
Musical director: Dale Rieling
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
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