Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Oh, You Can’t Sit Down! – New “Porgy and Bess” at the Ahmanson
It depends on where you sit as to how you categorize George Gershwin’s opus, “Porgy and Bess.” He wanted it on Broadway. Now it is usually in opera houses. He saw it as an homage, based in part on a DuBose Heyward novel and in part on his own observations – from the outside – to African-American life on an island off the southern coast. Many see it, rather, as a series of stereotypes – of women, of African-American life, of poor communities – and therefore difficult to wrestle with. For some it needs reforming to be acceptable to a modern audience or performer. For others it is a great piece of American classical music, and fiddling with it would be like reworking Verdi or Bizet.
Director Diane Paulus took this bull by the horns, invited Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks to adapt the script and Diedre L. Murray to adapt the score, cut it from nearly 4 hours to about 2 1/2, and created what is billed as “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” winner of the Tony Award for Best Revival. This despite the entire enterprise being loudly criticized by no less than Stephen Sondheim for fiddling with a classic. Now at the Ahmanson Theatre, you can decide for yourself. As for me, lover of Gershwin that I am, I find this new “Porgy” delightful in its sense of community, and still richly musical. The greatest songs are there, and the twists in tale and personhood make for freshness.
I would put it up next to the David Henry Hwang adaptation of “Flower Drum Song” (which was brilliant, regardless of New York critics’ consensus), as a way to breathe enriched life into a great work tabled for its lack of modern sensitivity. This is a “Porgy and Bess” people will come to see, and not leave feeling the way one feels watching Bill Robinson be ordered around by Shirley Temple.
Certainly, the artistry of direction and performance keep the tale humming along. The attention to the people of Catfish Row – their individual wants, and their sense of community – elevates its humanity in a way which only grows the experience. You do not just observe these people, you get to liking them, admiring their underlying grit and their ability to find strength in tradition, faith and each other.
Add to this the rich vocal talent of the cast. Nathaniel Stampley’s Porgy sings with heart, and gives Porgy’s disability greater definition. No longer rolling around in a cart, his twisted leg and handy cane give him the opportunity to look life in the eye more often than in past productions. Alicia Hall Moran gives Bess a wary, wounded quality which creates a particular empathy with the audience. This is not just the “bad girl,” and an article to be fought over by men, but someone struggling with addiction, desperate for belonging, who proves her mettle – up to a point anyway – to a grudgingly accepting fishing village.
Also worthy of special attention are Kingsley Leggs, who gives a jaunty jazz feel to Sportin’ Lifethe erstwhile Manhattan pusher so scornful of small town life, the operatic Denisha Ballew, whose “My Man’s Gone Now” cuts to the heart and all but stops the show, and wistful Sumayya Ali, who along with the handsome, tender David Hughey handles a reworking of the show’s most famous tune, “Summertime,” with warmth and a sense of forward movement.
Which is not to say that anyone else in the cast does not stand up to the general excellence. They do, and dance well too. Choreographer Ronald K. Brown has created movement and dance which both enhance the show’s cultural context and create considerable visual and emotional spark. The rough-hewn set by Riccardo Hernandez provides what is needed for the storytelling without extraneous clutter.
In short, this is “Porgy and Bess” honed down to its essential essence. Exciting and inviting, it brings Catfish Row back into the light. Yes, it is not exactly as George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heywood first imagined it, but that is one of the joys of working with something which has stood the test of time. After all, how many productions still use every word of a Shakespeare play – or its original Elizabethan setting? Sometimes, for the joy of the original to shine through, it must be reimagined to reach people where they are.
What: “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” When: Through June 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 pm Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $120 Info: (213) 792-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org