By John Quinn,
Why tinker with a classic? The question is even more appropriate when the classic in question is regarded as one of the most important American musical works of the 20th century.
“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” playing this week at the Detroit Opera House, won the Tony Award in 2012 for Best Revival of a Musical, so somebody did something right. Get ticket information and more at www.encoremichigan.com.
This production is not a tinkering, not even an adaptation in the conventional sense, but a reimagining of the opera. “Porgy and Bess” was composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Dubose Heyward and Ira Gershwin and libretto by Heyward. The decision of the artists’ estates to permit this “revival” was fraught with controversy – some of it downright hostile.
Tragedy inspires opera, and “Porgy and Bess” is no exception. The setting is the tenements of Catfish Row, a run-down section of Charleston, South Carolina sometime in the Jazz Age. It’s now home to working-class African-Americans: fishermen and stevedores. In a cocaine and alcohol fueled rage, Crown (Alvin Crawford), the neighborhood bully, kills the amiable Robbins (James Earl Jones II) in a gambling dispute. The residents of the Row are experienced with Charleston police – they scatter to their homes. But when Crown flees, his tough-as-nails woman, Bess (Alicia Hall Moran), has nowhere to hide. She’s taken in by Porgy, a crippled beggar. Bess is both physically and emotionally scarred. She’s never experienced tenderness like Porgy offers her. The pair falls in love, but hovering over their happiness, like hurricane clouds in a Carolina sky, is the potential for Crown’s return to claim Bess.
But the original question stands. Why a makeover? Face it folks, the performing arts are a tough sell. In a culture obsessed with instant gratification, fewer potential patrons are willing to cultivate the conventions of artistic genres. This is especially true of opera, because one can’t render a respectable aria 140 characters at a time. This 1935 opera is reworked for 21st century sensibilities. “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” has new dialogue by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, a brushed up score by Diedre L. Murray, and was directed for the stage by the multi-awarding winning Diane Paulus. The creative team has commented that the production’s primary goal is to “introduce the work to the next generation of theatergoers.”
How does one accomplish that? First, you edit. The opera, as written, runs four hours and has only been produced in its entirety once – by the Houston Grand Opera, in 1976. The current production comes in at a svelte two and a half hours without the cuts being noticeable. Secondly, you adapt the work for more contemporary tastes by moving it from folk opera towards musical theater.
This is not unprecedented, nor does it violate the original artists’ intent. Composer George Gershwin wrote, “It is true that I have written songs for ‘Porgy and Bess.’ I am not ashamed of writing songs at any time so long as they are good songs. In “Porgy and Bess” I realized that I was writing an opera for the theater, and without songs it could be neither of the theater nor entertaining from my viewpoint.”
To that end, Diedre L. Murray’s adapted score is insightful. But it’s the orchestrations by Wiliam David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke that make magic happen. While George Gershwin consciously blended European orchestral music with jazz and blues, this version features a marvelous clarity and definite American style. While the 23-member orchestra is huge by touring standards, it’s slimmer than what opera would entail. Musical director Dale Rieling achieves a beautiful balance of tone through which an audience can experience the joy implicit in full-throated jazz trumpets and the complexities of Gershwin piano music.
Opera’s distinctive technique, “recitative,” means the dialogue is sung. With the exception of shows like” Phantom of the Opera” and Les Miserables,” musicals have spoken dialogue. “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” employs both methods, balancing them well, even though there remains a Dr. Doolittle-like pushmi-pullyu feel. The sung dialogue is most effective when it bridges musical numbers. It is most noticeable in the opening scene as it connects, both emotionally and structurally, Sumayya Ali’s ethereal “Summertime” with David Hughey’s exuberant “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.”
While all the performers are experienced in musical theater, some are classically trained. Most numbers have been restyled to avoid operatic conventions; not all of them could make that translation. The marvelous aria “My Man’s Gone Now,” Serena‘s agonized lament over the body of her murdered husband, Robbins, is entrusted to the awesome talents of soprano Denisha Ballew. Her powerful performance can tear one’s heart out.
There’s welcome comic relief from the interplay between Danielle Lee Greaves and Kingsley Leggs very much on their games representing the good and the bad of Catfish Row. Mariah is a wise mother hen of her neighborhood; Sporting Life is a coke-dealing, dice-rolling self-proclaimed lady’s man. The adaptors chose to retain Mariah’s description of Sporting Life’s flaws, “I Hate Your Strutting Style.” Experiencing the snake “getting served” is priceless – although, considering her obvious contempt, Mariah seems almost nice to her quarry.
Another piece that might have been cut – to our loss – is the serene intermezzo, “Street Cries,” as merchants in Catfish Row – Sarita Rachelle Lilly, Chauncey Packer and Dwelvan David – call out their wares. It’s eerie, captivating and absolutely beautiful.
The production, of course, will rise and fall on the strength of its ill-fated triangle. Alvin Crawford’s Crown is big and menacing, both physically and vocally. He projects an air of danger, yet also conveys the mystique that keeps attracting Bess back. The title characters are perhaps the most noticeable improvements in this adaptation. Bess is more a focus of attention than is usually played. She is not so much a victim as a woman in charge of her own fate, but prisoner of her addictions.
Alicia Hall Moran plays both sides of a tormented soul with style. Nathaniel Stampley plays Porgy less crippled than his predecessors. Gone are the goat cart of the original, replaced by a cane and brace. Like Bess, this Porgy is less helpless but also less conflicted. While his performance is convincing, and the couple’s duets soaring, it is regrettable that Stampley’s vocal talents aren’t challenged by the re-written score.
So is this still an opera? Is it a musical? If I had to select one, I’d say it’s more opera than musical – not that there’s anything wrong with that. I think the jury’s still out on whether “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” can attract the next generation of theater patrons; but, for those of us already in the know, it’s remarkably fine entertainment.
John Quinn reviews local theater productions for http://www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.