Monday, December 16, 2013
Theater review: The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess adds new life to iconic opera
Catch it for a limited run at Winspear Opera House.
DALLAS The national tour of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess arrives in Dallas with some extraordinary talent in a unique, new version of the original four-hour opera, now styled as a standard musical presentation.
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is based on DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy and the play of the same name, which he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy Heyward. All three works deal with African American life in fictitious Catfish Row (based on the real-life Rainbow Row) in Charleston, South Carolina, early 1920s. George Gershwin worked on Porgy and Bess in Charleston and drew inspiration from the James Island Gullah community which he felt had preserved some African musical traditions. The music itself reflects his New York jazz roots but also draws on southern black traditions. Gershwin modeled the pieces after each type of folk song which the composer knew about - jubilees, blues, praying songs, street cries, work songs, and spirituals are blended with traditional arias and recitatives.
With that being said, the title may be misleading. This is not George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks have reworked the original four-hour opera into a stylized, two and a half-hour show that plays more like a traditional Broadway musical, with a scaled-back score (for a 22-piece ensemble), a streamlined story and spoken dialogue replacing the Gershwins' recitatives. Parks' book is well done, holding strength and directness, however certain choices didn’t quite work for me, including the ending which I won’t reveal, but it is not the original and left me a bit disappointed. Overall, the collaboration does work for American musical theater fans, but the true-to-heart Gershwin idealists may not be so accepting of the major changes. You will still be moved by wonderful songs such as "Summertime," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "I Got Plenty of Nothing," and "It Ain't Necessarily So." From lowdown blues to sultry lullabies, this is a score to be applauded and taken in fully.
Ironically, what is commonly called “The First Great American Opera,” now a new musical, is playing at the beautiful Winspear Opera House here in Dallas. Seemingly the perfect place to present this show, its new feel and design removes that splendor and simply feels like a road show in an “opera house” setting.
Direction by Diane Paulus is bold, poignant and very creative. You are involved with every scene, song and moment. Ms. Paulus presents some amazing looks and stage pictures throughout the production while also taking very intimate moments and thrusting them into full focus. You are always completely involved in the story as well as the characters she so brilliantly maneuvers throughout the show.
Dale Rieling’s music direction is stunning! He has an extraordinarily talented cast to work with and has taken full advantage of it. Great moments of a-cappella and improvised vocals are perfectly delivered and blended seamlessly into the difficult orchestrations. Every note throughout the evening is delivered superbly and will leave you breathless. This is a wonderful example of music direction at its finest.
Choreography by Ronald K. Brown is rich, well designed and wonderfully represents the time and culture in which the story is set. During the picnic scene on the island the entire stage is engulfed in joyous dance and physical expression that leave you in awe. The large ensemble number is breathtaking and truly exploits the talents of this chorographer and the wonderful cast he was given, yet never at any moment do the vocals get overwhelmed ... a truly wonderful job Mr. Brown. Bravo.
Costume Design by ESosa is period perfect and wonderfully represents each and every character. Drab, sometimes torn and worn dresses for the women and work clothes for the men are stylishly fashioned yet represent the locale and its people. Stunning layer upon layer of fabrics is well used, and ESosa truly shines when it comes to “dressing in their picnic best." A distinction between the daily clothes and special ones is delivered with colorful dresses and suits for the men along with stunning hats and shoes. The splendor, however, is kept in line with the impoverished people of the locale, meaning the costumes actually represent what their “picnic” best would be.
Christopher Akerlind’s lighting is true opera design at its best! Saturated colors flood the stage from the wings and upstage. His use of footlights and floor mounted lighting along the orchestra pit create visual masterpieces of light and shadows throughout the production. The only real front light was from a handful of instruments along the first mezzanine (used rarely) and the follow spots; other than that Mr. Akerlind’s design was highly intricate. He masterfully creates different locations with beams of light representing doorways and apartments. All of this never once detracts from the performance but highly accentuates it by taking each scene to a much, much higher level.
A negative throughout the performance was the sound balance of the performers and the wonderful live orchestra. Many times I had a hard time understanding the dialogue and beautiful words in the songs. When it was only a few actors onstage all was wonderful, but as soon as larger groups assembled the sound quality became murky and muddled. At one point, a leading actor’s microphone over modulated and peaked, causing a badly distorted sound. It was distracting to strain to understand the already complicated vocals in the production, which was disappointing as this was in a facility designed for auditory perfection.
The performers are spectacular in this production! The vocals, the acting and character choices are simply stunning throughout. Ever member of this cast is astounding and when they grace the stage you are never left disappointed.
In the title roles, Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy and Alicia Hall Moran as Bess take this new adaptation of the classic to extraordinary new heights. Whatever your decision is on the adaptation of the original, there is no way you can doubt these two immensely talented actors at any time during the show.
Mr. Stampley’s sullen yet deeply loving portrayal of Porgy immediately takes you in and never lets you go. His deep connection to the role is evident and truly shows his passion as an actor. You believe every word and note he sings and feel every emotion with him.
Alicia Hall Moran as Bess is stunning, poignant and powerful. Playing the lost soul as it were, one whose character follows an arc all the way through the deepest passions of life and love a human can endure, was delivered wonderfully and without flaw. Her connection to the character seems deep and true, and again I deeply felt every heart- wrenching and exciting emotion she experiences.
The two “villains,” as it were, Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life and Alvin Crawford as Crown, enthrall you with distinct character choices that thoroughly envelop you into the story. Each character, in his own right, is despicable but neither actor overplays the terrible personalities of the role. You dislike them, quite a bit in some cases, but you never hate them. Hating them would diminish the power their characters have and need in the story but these two splendid actors did far from that; they intrigue you and keep you involved in their respective characters.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is definitely a musical to see. Although not the original opera, it just might make you want to see the original if you get the chance. This new adaptation is a powerful new American musical that stands on its own to great success.
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