Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Porgy and Bess, A Mesmerizing Operatic Triumph


By Darlene Donloe

It’s no secret why The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is a Tony Award-winning musical (2012 Best Revival Of A Musical). It’s also no secret why the show is considered one of the most important American musical works of the 20th century. It has all the elements to make it a winner.

The acting, the story, the music, the singing, the human condition, love, a 23-piece orchestra, it’s all there. That winning combination makes for an emotionally charged night of theater.

The show, currently playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 1, is more than just another play. It’s an invitation to become part of a community where neighbors are family and everyone has your back.

Because of its dramatic and emotional tug, the audience has no choice but to become invested in the characters. The question becomes, what happens to these characters when the play ends?  How does the story end? We want to know more!

This new, touring version of the classic has been re-created and re-invisioned. While it's new, it doesn’t stray from the show’s original core. If you liked the original, you’ll like the latest incarnation. If you never saw the original, you will not be at a loss.  This show is still fantastic. Of the changes, most noticeable is the fact that Porgy is no longer shuffling around the stage in a goat cart, instead he has a cane and a leg brace.  It’s a different offering from the traditional but is no-less powerful. It’s still an inspired show.

It’s so well written that the audience is transported into the town of Catfish Row and Kittiwah Island.

The show, set in the 1930s, opens with the sensational and crowd-favorite, Summertime.  Other show favorites include I Got Plenty Of Nothing, Bess, You Is My Woman Now, It Ain’t Necessarily So and I Loves You, Porgy.  But there are plenty of other songs to round out this musical.

The play is full of unforgettable characters inhabiting a rundown section of Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a place where drugs run freely and where working-class African-Americans, fishermen and stevedores make the best of their lives.

Jake (David Hughey) is a strong and proud man determined to take care of his wife and child. Serena (Denisha Ballew) makes no mistake about her love for her husband, Robbins (James Earl Jones II). Mariah, the town mother is played, brilliantly, by Danielle Lee Greaves.  Sportin Life is a cocky, coke dealer. He’s played mostly for comedy by Kingsley Leggs. Crown (Alvin Crawford) is a beefy bully who loves terrorizing those of lesser girth. Bess (Alicia Hall Moran) is such a tormented, conflicted and delicious drugged out prostitute that she’s simply hypnotic. And, well Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), what can I say?  I love you, Porgy!!!

All of the characters in this cast have the voices of angels, bringing the words and music to life.

Some of the songs are so solidly delivered they make you weep. For instance the aria, My Man’s Gone Now, sung by Denisha Ballew’ Bess, You Is My Woman Now and I Loves You, Porgy, sung by the handsome Nathaniel Stampley (Porgy) and Alicia Hall Moran (Bess) whose voices soar.
The vocal talents in this show abound.

The story begins when a mean, despicable, drunk and drugged out Crown (Alvin Crawford), kills a milder Robbins over a gambling dispute. Crown runs away and his woman, Bess, who is considered a loose woman, decides to meld in with the community by moving in with Porgy, the town cripple. 

Porgy and Bess, who has never known tenderness, fall in love. The story gets muddy when Crown returns to reclaim his woman. What will Bess do?  What will she do, indeed?

Oooh, the stories within the stories in this masterpiece are luscious and the issues are naughty. Drugs, sex, love, violence, murder and discrimination.

This is an old story, but it still feels fresh. The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is a musical theatre adaptation of the original opera.  This new show can be considered both a musical and an opera. 

The cast, includes Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran as Porgy and Bess (respectively), Alvin Crawford as Crown, Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life, Sumayya Ali as Clara, Denisha Ballew as Serena, Danielle Lee Greaves as Mariah and David Hughey as Jake.

In addition, the cast includes Dan Barnhill, Vanjah Boikai, Adrianna M. Cleveland, Roosevelt André Credit, Cicily Dainels, Dwelvan David, Nkrumah Gatling, Tamar Greene, Nicole Adell Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Quentin Oliver Lee, Cheryse McLeod Lewis, Sarita Rachelle Lilly, Kent Overshown, Chauncey Packer, Lindsay Roberts, Fred Rose and Soara-Joye Ross.

All of the actors give wrenching performances. Stampley as Porgy is outstanding - emoting how he longs for a woman he’s not sure he can keep.  Moran as Bess has the ability to enlist sympathy, pity and disgust.  Leggs is sufficiently slimy as Sportin Life, slithering his way around the stage like a snake offering a poisoned apple.

What a great cast. Everyone brings their A game.

Kudos to a new Porgy and Bess.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin, book adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, musical score adapted by Diedre L. Murray, directed by Diane Paulus.

On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), Porgy and Bess gets an E (excellent).

Porgy and Bess, Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun., through June 1; Tickets $20-$120; 213 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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