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PORGY AND BESS enthralls at the Palace

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

It might surprise many to find that the original 1935 Broadway production of “PORGY AND BESS” ran only 124 performances.  The reasons were many including the all Black cast, some of the overtones of the script were perceived by some to be “too Negro,” the opera format was considered “not Broadway,” while some railed that it “had racial overtones.”  Other suppositions were that the heavy dependence of a strong story line was not a familiar format during the era of escapist comedies, follies and vaudeville.  Not to be overlooked was the fact that the production lasted four hours, with two intermissions.

The intent of George Gershwin, who wrote the now revered classic music for the show, was to create an “American folk opera.”  Because it was first performed on a Broadway stage, the “opera” recognition had to wait until 1976 when it was staged by the Houston Grand Opera, a “legitimate opera company.”  The final step toward operatic recognition was achieved in 1985 when the piece was presented by the Metropolitan Opera of New York.

The 2012 two and a half-hour Broadway revival, which carried the name “THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS,” was a major remaking of the original, with an eye on appealing to a contemporary audience.  It ran 322 performances, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance for Audra McDonald as Best Actress in a Musical.

The revival was not without its nay-sayers.   Steven Sondheim criticized the new title because, “it took credit away from DuBose Heyward,” the author of the novel, “PORGY,” who also wrote the libretto and co-wrote the lyrics with Ira Gershwin.  Sondheim, the reigning king of the contemporary Broadway musical,  said the changes had “disdain toward the [original] work.”  He was not alone in his reaction.  Critics all praised McDonald, but were divided on the “success of the adaptation, staging and setting.”

It is a touring company, performing the 2012 version, which is now on stage at the Palace Theatre.

What’s the show about?  PORGY AND BESS tells the tale of Porgy, a disabled Negro beggar who lives in Catfish Row, an impoverished Black area of Charleston, South Carolina.  Porgy falls in love with Bess, a prostitute who is being controlled by her violent and possessive lover, Crown, and is beholden to Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer.

The power of the show is the amazing musical score which includes “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”  Be aware that Gershwin’s underlying music has been eliminated.

The touring production sizzles.  From the dynamic “Summertime,” which sets the show’s tone, to the plaintive “I’m on My Way,” everything works well.  Diane Paulus’s direction and Ronald K. Brown’s choreography develop the right mood.  The pacing, acting, dancing, singing, choral work, musical sounds, sets and lighting all work.  The costumes are glorious, maybe too upper class for these poor folk, but they add to the luminosity of the production.

Alicia Hall Moran, who alternated with and understudied Audra McDonald  on Broadway,  makes Bess a multi-leveled woman, driven by sexual desire and drug dependency, with a strong need to be wanted.  She makes the character both despicable and appealing.  She has a wonderful singing voice, avoiding the often distracting soprano quivering vibrato.  She nicely sings meanings, not just words.

We feel both sorry and uplifted by Porgy, as sensitively portrayed by Nathaniel Stampley.  When he departed in his search for Bess, sounds of “don’t go,” echoed through the audience.   The duet, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” was a show highlight

Physically imposing Alvin Crawford is properly evil incarnate as Crown.  Kingsley Leggs, with his flashy clothes and smooth ways, is effectively snarky as Sporting Life.  Dannielle Lee Greaves gives the right earth mother image and feeling to Mariah.  Denisha Ballew gives a special plaintive sound of loss to “My Man’s Gone Now.”

The rest of the cast has high quality voices and acting abilities, while the orchestral sounds fill the large theatre without drowning out the performers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  For those concerned because some touring companies aren’t as good or the productions as grand as Broadway shows, worry not with the road performance of THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS.  It is, as its title says, “The Broadway Musical.”  For anyone who wants to see and hear a fine staging of a very important classic, this is it!

Tickets, for the show that runs through February 16, 2014,  can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to