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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A Glorious Weekend with Porgy and Bess

Also see Bob's reviews of Trenton Lights, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Creating Claire

If you are but a dream, I hope I never waken.

Porgy and Bess
Laquita Mitchell and
Gregg Baker

On the third Sunday afternoon in May, I had the pleasure of standing on Broad Street in front of Newark's Symphony Hall, and seeing over two thousand happy and proud people streaming through the doors of its Sarah Vaughn Concert Hall to see that weekend's second and final performance of the New Jersey State Opera production of the great American opera Porgy and Bess. Waves of people, many dressed in their Sunday best for this gala occasion, could be seen walking south from the direction of Pennsylvania Station creating the look of a traditional Easter Parade.

For three hours, we all were treated to a large scale, gorgeously sung and played full opera house production of the George and Ira Gershwin - DuBose Heyward folk opera. Porgy and Bess transports us back to Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1930 to share the faith, tribulations and fleeting joys of a close-knit southern black fishing community.

Beginning with Clara's opening lullaby "Summertime," warmly and tenderly sung by Janinah Burnett, the production goes from strength. Angela Brown (Serena) is an operatic powerhouse with her stunning and deeply moving "My Man's Gone Now." Gregg Baker brings fresh life and spirit to Porgy from the first act rouser, "I've Got Plenty of Nothing" all the way through to the soulful and optimistic finale, "Oh, Lord, I'm On My Way." Starting with the passionate and powerful plea "What You Want With Bess," Laquita Mitchell goes from strength to strength. Jermaine Smith dances beautifully and fully conveys the seductive evil of Sportin' Life, although he plays too many tricks with the notes of "It Ain't Necessarily So" for my taste. Sabrina Elayne Carten brings the house and Sportin' Life down as Maria, the conscience of Catfish Row, singing "I Hate Your Strutting Style." Lester Lynch renders the evil menace of Crown palpably, right through to his strongly sung and acted "A Red Headed Woman." Eric Green (Jake), Michael Austin (Robbins), Elias Hendricks, Melanie Campbell (Strawberry Woman) and each of the other principals make notable contributions.

Director Jonathan Eaton's staging brings theatrical life to this production. When Porgy and Bess unleash their sexual passion, Eaton stages the moment with considerable eroticism. The finale is staged to suggest that Porgy's love and passion for Bess may have miraculously restored the use of his legs to him. The tempi of conductor Jason C. Tramm are lively and accurate.

Prior to Porgy and Bess, the New Jersey State Opera had not produced a full production in Newark since the death of its founder in 2006. Corporate and private sponsors and arts foundations contributed generously to enable NJSO to mount this Porgy and Bess with over 110 performers and musicians. Hopefully, this is just a beginning in the re-birth of Symphony Hall and the New Jersey State Opera in Newark. It will not be easy. However, anyone who was at Symphony Hall for Porgy and Bess knows that this valiant effort was well worth making.

Porgy and Bess was performed by the New Jersey State Opera on May 21 and May 23, 2010 at Symphony Hall (Sarah Vaughn Concert Hall), 2010 Broad Street, Newark, NJ 07102. Box Office: 973-643-4550; online: www.newarksymphonyhafll.org

Porgy and Bess Music by George Gershwin; Libretto by DuBose Heyward; Lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin; directed by Jonathan Eaton

Principal Cast
Porgy.................................................Gregg Baker
Bess..............................................Laquita Mitchell
Crown................................................Lester Lynch
Serena.............................................Angela Brown
Sportin' Life...................................Lawrence Craig
Clara.............................................Janinah Burnett
Jake.....................................................Eric Greene
Maria....................................Sabrina Elayne Carten
Robbins............................................Michael Austin
Undertaker/Jim.............................Patrick Blackwell
Peter........................................................Calvin Lee
Mingo/Crab Man...............................Elias Hendricks
Strawberry Woman.......................Melanie Campbell
Jasbo Brown..................................Richard C. Alston
Lawyer Frazier.....................................Roland Burks
Annie...................................................Shannon Levy
Lily..................................................Patrice P. Eaton


Photo: Jerry Dalia


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- Bob Rendell



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