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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
ASU/Gammage

Also see Gil's reviews of The Full Monty, My Fair Lady in Concert, The Miracle Worker and Young Frankenstein


Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley
The recent 2012 Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess created some controversy when it was first announced. Originally conceived as a "folk opera" in 1935, the "re-envisioned" revival features a revised and abridged book that includes new dialogue in place of some of the previously sung operatic recitative, new scenes, updated orchestrations, a shorter running time and even a new title, now dubbed The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. Those changes didn't sit well with certain individuals, inciting even someone at the level of composer Stephen Sondheim to question the changes that were being made to this American "classic," especially the name change, as the new title gave no credit to original collaborators DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. And while this wasn't the first time this opera had been tinkered with, the updated changes, when combined with the glorious music from George Gershwin and superb lyrics from his brother Ira and DuBose Heyward, don't detract from the original vision of the opera. The Broadway revival was a success, winning the Tony for Best Musical Revival. The national tour of this production, with well-honed performances from Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran as Porgy and Bess and a superb ensemble, started last fall and is running in Tempe through Sunday.

Depicting a group of poor Southern African Americans, Porgy and Bess is set in Charleston, South Carolina's fictitious Catfish Row in the late 1930s. Former prostitute and cocaine addict Bess, eager to be free from her former life but shunned by her fellow inhabitants, finds acceptance from the crippled beggar Porgy who comes to her rescue after the aftermath of a murder finds her homeless. But Bess' former lover Crown and the seductive drug dealer Sporting Life, combined with Bess' troubled past and addictions, threaten to derail her new life and blossoming romance with Porgy.

The score includes the instantly recognizable songs "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "I Got Plenty of Nothing." Gershwin's music, with an abundance of rich musical underscoring throughout, in addition to the well-known songs, is marvelous, especially when played by this tour's 23-piece orchestra. This revised production, while shortened due to the cuts in the score, still provides rich archetypal characters that are easily recognizable and results in a deeply emotional intimate story of the intense romance between the downtrodden Porgy and Bess.

Part tragedy, part "slice-of-life" drama, Porgy and Bess features distinct characters, and this cast all manage to instill an appropriate feeling of loneliness as well as an abundance of joy and longing to their parts. Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy both bring a deep level of truth and genuineness to their portrayals. Stampley achieves a nice amount of intensity in how Porgy continually tries to protect Bess, and his rich and pure voice sends his songs soaring. Moran's voice has a deep feeling of earthiness that grounds it in a heightened sense of reality that works well to naturally portray Bess's conflict between her old ways and her newfound desire to be "decent." The intense duet "I Loves You, Porgy" has a perfect amount of desperation underneath it and is emotionally satisfying.

Alvin Crawford as Crown, Bess' former abusive lover, is strong and forceful with a powerful voice, and Kingsley Leggs does a nice job in making Sporting Life, the drug dealer, the continual temptation to Bess, with his constant offering of free "happy dust" to her. However, Leggs' solo, "It Ain't Necessarily So," doesn't quite achieve the level of satisfaction it should.

In the supporting cast, Danielle Lee Greaves is superb as Mariah, the motherly figure of the group, who, like Porgy, is protective of Bess, especially around Sporting Life, and brings a nice amount of feistiness to "I Hates Your Strutting Style," her song that puts Sporting Life in his place. Denisha Ballew's Serena, who finds herself a widow early in the show, has a soaring voice that brings a huge amount of emotion to her two gospel led songs "My Man's Gone Now" and "Oh, Doctor Jesus." As Clara and Jake, the young couple with a new baby, Sumayya Ali and David Hughey bring a nice sense of realism to the struggles their characters face. Together they start the show off with a rich duet of "Summertime" and Hughey leads the male ensemble in two rousing numbers, "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing," and "It Takes a Long Pull."

Director Diane Paulus has managed to make the abridged, revised version of this classic tale fairly successful, though there is a certain amount of melodrama still present, as well as some of the characters' motivations, especially in a couple of Bess' scenes, is lacking and therefore make a few of the plot points a little confusing. However, the addition of the rousing choreography from Ronald K. Brown that grows organically out of the scenes and musical numbers is a highlight. The creative elements for this production, while professional, are somewhat minimal. Using a series of wooden planks for his stage and just three drops to portray various locales, set designer Riccardo Hernandez uses brown hues and barren walls to portray the low income settings and the heat of the summer time frame of the story. Costume designer ESosa fairs better, with a series of period and character perfect costumes. I especially like Bess' sexy red dress and high heels that we first see her wearing that are then replaced by a simple dress and bare feet to show her attempt to lead a more decent life. Christopher Akerlind's lighting design is effective in delineating the various scenes and settings of the play, and his use of shadows in a few scenes to heighten the emotions of the moment, is quite impressive.

While this updated version makes it somewhat more accessible and the dialogue adds a bit more clarification to some parts, Porgy and Bess is still at its core an opera. So if you're afraid of large choral numbers sung by the entire ensemble with lyrics that aren't that easily understandable, or the heightened emotions that most operas entail, with a somewhat lack of the clarity behind some of the actions of the characters, you'd best be advised to steer clear of Gammage this week. But, if you are prepared to experience soaring melodies and the full, rich lushness that a large orchestra can deliver, and performers who are conveying rich portrayals of these classic archetypes, I'd highly recommended attending the national tour of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess runs through June 8th, 2014, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.asugammage.com/ or by calling 480 965-3434. Additional tour dates can be found at porgyandbessthemusical.com.

Music by George Gershwin
Book by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward
Director: Diane Paulus
Adaptation and Additional Scenes: Suzan-Lori Parks
Musical Adaptation: Diedre L. Murray
Choreographer: Ronald K. Brown
Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Designer: ESosa
Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Designer: ACME Sound Partners
Music Supervisor: Constantine Kitsopoulous
Music Director/Conductor: Dale Rieling
Cast (in order of appearance):
Clara: Sumayya Ali
Jake: David Hughey
Mariah: Danielle Lee Greaves
Sporting Life: Kingsley Leggs
Mingo, the Undertaker: Kent Overshown
Serena: Denisha Ballew
Robbins: James Earl Jones II
Porgy: Nathaniel Stampley
Crown: Alvin Crawford
Bess: Alicia Hall Moran
Detective: Dan Barnhill
Policeman: Fred Rose
The Strawberry Woman: Sarita Rachelle Lilly
Peter, the Honey Man: Chauncey Packer
The Crab Man: Dwelvan David
Fisherman: Roosevelt André Credit, Nkrumah Gatling, Tamar Greene
Women of Catfish Row: Adrianna M. Cleveland, Cicily Daniels, Dwelvan David, Nicole Adell Johnson, Soara-Joye Ross


Photo: Michael J. Lutch

--Gil Benbrook


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