Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and
Shawn Ryan at Feinstein's

Also see Patrick's reviews of Harvey and Lua Hadar: C'est Magnifique

A Splendid Production of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
The touring production of the 2012 Tony Award winning revival of the The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is making its first stop at the Golden Gate Theatre, where it will play through December 8th. There was a lot of hullabaloo about whether director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks had the right to reinvent this great American opera as a Broadway musical. The production materializes as a moving accolade to the genius of the original.

This marks the fourth time I have seen the superlative opera, the first being at the Ziegfeld Theatre in 1953 with Leontyne Price as Bess and Cab Calloway as Sporting Life. This production was more operatic in form than the current production. Following that, I saw the 1976 Houston Grand Opera Company at the Uris Theatre in New York. I was told that this was really more like the 1935 original. My last time was at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s with Simon Estes as Porgy and Grace Bumbry as Bess.

The touring production is a trimmed down version running two hours and thirty-five minutes. It tells a precise story of the ill-fated lovers without any social or political implications. A huge amount of music has been abandoned and replaced by dialogue by Suzan-Lori Parks. Porgy has been given a cane and a leg brace that give him greater mobility. There is also no backstory on Bess in this production. Parks has added a few pinches of additional dialogue to help flesh out Bess' background.

Generally, I have seen the opening scene of this show as a dramatic progression of the cast of Catfish Row milling about, working and hawking their wares. That now comes in the second act, as this production opens up with "Summertime," normally sung by Clara to her baby. The new opening still has Clara singing, but now her husband joins in. The audience cringes during the confrontation between Bess and her former lover Crown as they meet during the picnic scene. The attempted rape scene is chillingly realistic as he sexually attacks her and even drags her toward some bushes. She then relents, since this husky man is just too strong, and starts to take off her dress, leading Crown off stage, as the score leads to a soaring crescendo.

Where this production shines is in the performances, all throughout the large cast, ranging from very good to outstanding, and in Diane Paulus' sparkling staging. Riccardo Hernandez has devised an excellent first act set of craftily handsome plywood that looks like tenement houses on Catfish Row. The second act set is a simple all sky blue background enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's lighting. ESosa's costumes are simple, with the exception of the picnic scene where they have brightness. The ensemble almost looks like a chorus in an old-fashioned musical comedy.

Nathaniel Stampley incises Porgy with dignity and elegance and he sings beautifully. He is vibrant singing "I Got Plenty Of Nothing" and his duets with Alicia Hall Moran as Bess on "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You, Porgy" are done with heartrending style. Alicia Hall Moran gives a genuine performance with an angelic voice. She plays Bess as a lost little girl haunted by her past.

Kingsley Leggs is wonderfully sassy as Sporting Life. He sings "It Ain't Necessary So" and "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon" splendidly. Sumayya Ali and David Hughey as Clara and Jake croon "Summertime" beautifully as a duet. He is also impressive singing "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing." Denisha Ballew gives a riveting rendering of "My Man's Gone Now" and "Oh, Doctor Jesus." Alvin Crawford contributes a formidable performance as Crown. He is commanding when singing "A Red Headed Woman." Danielle Lee Greaves is wonderful as the caustic Mariah. The chorus in such numbers as "A Woman is a Sometime Thing", "Gone, Gone, Gone", "Clara, Don't You Be Downhearted" and I'm On My Way" make a solid impression.

If you have never seen Porgy and Bess, this version will give you an inkling of the power of the score.

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess plays through December 8th at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 888-746-1799 or online at For more information on the tour, visit

The Personable and Talented Shawn Ryan at Feinstein's at the Nikko

The likeable and gifted Shawn Ryan made a one night appearance at San Francisco's premiere cabaret, Feinstein's at the Nikko, earlier this month. He is not only a terrific singer but a great entertainer as well. His voice is a sturdy, flexible tenor with a nicely controlled vibrato. His new show is essentially a display of vocal flexibility and light-heartedness, providing entree to solid musicianship. He also kept the audience laughing with clever banter between each song. Some critics call him "the love child of Bette Midler and Peter Allen."

Shawn Ryan was a semi-finalist several years ago on "America's Got Talent." Even though he did not win, his sense of humor and great voice brought national attention. He and his partner now run a theatrical training camp for up and coming young singers and actors in Southern California.

Backed by a classy trio of resolute pianist/arranger Kelly Park, innovative bassist Daniel Fabricant, inventive guitarist Mark Holzinger, and Surya Prakasha on drums along, with two great backup singers Jessica Coker and Jenny Coker, this was a great one hour and fifteen minute night of performing.

Shawn opened the show with the swinging Hot Chelle Rae song "Tonight, Tonight" followed by British composer ZoĆ« Lewis' "Snow White" in which the lyrics say that Snow White never said the "f" word. Between some clever word play with the audience Shawn gave a sensual interpretation of the Sherman brothers' "Let's Get Together." He was very droll singing April Smith's "Stop Wondering" to a waltz melody ("wondering if I am thinking of you tonight—well I'm not").

The singer, who composed the next song with his Young Actors' Theatre Camp campers, was crowd pleasing singing "Condo 8," a story of his first meeting in a bar with his lifetime companion. It has a western beat. He continued in a western vein with Brandy Clark and the Stripes' "Hold My Hand." The artist then told the packed house that his father was a rodeo rider and his first job was at age five when he played a partner to a rodeo clown. In fact, in that gig he was in drag.

Shawn did his "ballad" for the night, a Cole Porter style singing of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl." He was down and dirty with "If I Can't Sell It" and ended the show with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's sassy "Down with Love" with Kelly Park's arrangement from the obscure 1937 Broadway show Hooray for What!. For an encore he sang to his appreciative fans Shel Silverstein's "I'm Checking Out" a la Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge. Everyone checked out of the show with happy and optimistic moods.

For a lineup of upcoming Feinstein's at the Nikko events go to

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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