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Porgy and Bess Broadway Production at Academy of Music

Victor L. Schermer By

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Porgy and Bess
Broadway Musical Production
The Academy of Music
Philadelphia, PA
February 18, 2014

Following its multi-Tony Award-winning run on Broadway, an electrifying stage revival of George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess came to Philadelphia as part of an original cast national tour. For jazz aficionados, this timeless masterpiece, which debuted in Boston in 1935, is a quintessential opera in the jazz idiom, the purest and most potent illustration of why jazz has been called "America's classical music." It is a full operatic work that rivals any in the classic repertoire. Yet it is all Gershwin, and its music not only includes jazz standards such as "Summertime" and "I Loves You Porgy," it has become a role model for many subsequent Broadway musicals and pop standards that have since been absorbed into the jazz repertoire, the latter peaking with the Miles Davis/Gil Evans instrumental version (Porgy and Bess, Columbia, 1959).

Porgy and Bess is not only an unrelenting drama with one of the best musical scores ever composed, it is a true milestone in the history of music. It elevated American entertainment to the status of an art form, and it integrated European impressionist genres with African American gospel, swing, and jazz in a way that presaged everything from bebop to Miles Davis, Gil Evans, and John Coltrane to Leonard Bernstein's iconic score for West Side Story. This New Millennium revival used a top creative team that captured the essence of the original, going deep into tradition while yet evoking a postmodern sensibility. After attending this performance, one can only wonder why it is often considered a period piece and not performed more often.

The plot, as complex and circuitous as any of the great operas, involves elements that make for tragedy and triumph. It is the chronicle of an impoverished post-Reconstruction African American community, "Catfish Row," struggling to maintain its integrity; a love triangle (Porgy, a crippled man trying to redeem himself; Bess, a prostitute; and Crown, a drunken bully who claims possession of Bess); two murders in the heat of passion; an anti-hero drug dealer, Sporting Life, who is a devilish advocate of the pleasure principle; a botched investigation of the murders by two white cops; the tragic breakup of Porgy and Bess; Bess' defection from Porgy on "a boat dat's leavin' for New York;" and Porgy's search for his manhood and freedom by eluding the police, leaving Catfish Row, and going it on his own. There is enough here to make for many moments of high drama, interspersed with comic relief. A great songwriter like George Gershwin couldn't have asked for a better libretto (in this case by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin).

A phenomenal cast and creative team too numerous to mention make the show come alive by imparting to it acting, singing, choreography and arrangements that are skillful and imaginative throughout. The choreographer, Ronald K. Brown, infused the show with a combination of dance, trance-like and natural gestures that enliven every inch of the stage and every moment of the action. The musical score was adapted from the original by Obie-winner Deirdre L. Murray, who updated the score with help from orchestrators William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke, enriching and revitalizing the music while remaining faithful to Gershwin's intent. Actor-singers Nathaniel Stampley (Porgy), Alicia Hall Moran (Bess), Alvin Crawford (Crown), and Kingsley Leggs (Sporting Life) head up a stellar cast who evoke all the emotion and significance of each and every character and song. One could multiply the encomiums indefinitely. Director Diane Paulus more than deserves her Tony Awards for the way she took the massive and diverse talents and energy of her personnel and brought them all together into a unified whole, while carefully attending to the musical and dramatic details so important to an operatic work.

There are several features of this production that make it unique among the various incarnations of Porgy and Bess, not to mention the legions of singles and albums of its song cycle. The first is that it takes seriously the unity and integrity of the whole. Rather than providing entertainment like a Broadway musical as such, it is treated as a unified work of music and theater where every part relates to the whole. It achieves an internal consistency that is rare for any stage production.

The second unique feature is the steadily high energy level. The staging and the specific placement of scenes convey the meaning and significance of the music and action. The choreography and dramatic gestures stunningly complement Gershwin's music as it moves from soft and reflective to erotically arousing to intensely conflicted to provocative and questioning. Frenetic but controlled choreography enhances the way in which Gershwin's fully-realized jazz score expresses feelings and ideas.

Third, the sense of Catfish Row as a community of struggling souls is always front and center. Even during the soliloquies and duets, one is aware that they occur within a microcosm of humanity that forms the context of the drama. Everyone is trying to find himself or herself in the midst of turmoil and tragedy. In the post-Civil War South, African Americans, poor and segregated, wrested meaning and redemption from their minimal possessions and external resources. Such a sense of struggling community is the cultural source of the "blues" so central to jazz. Porgy and Bess has sometimes been considered racist, with its stereotyped almost "blackface" characters and language, but this production brings out something quite the opposite: an almost Marxist/W.E.B. Dubois-ian portrayal of the oppressed rising from the abyss of poverty. There is no better representative of this "rising" than Porgy, a helpless cripple who overcomes all obstacles to achieve love, the esteem of his fellows, freedom, and dignity.

Finally, the portrayal of the characters is stunningly and surprisingly postmodern. The influence of television, film, and "reality TV" comes through in characterizations that are strikingly realistic and complex, not fictionalized as in the post-Victorian mentality of Gershwin's era. Then too, this production owes something to the poetic character portrayals of Langston Hughes. Porgy and Bess could be living in Harlem today. Sporting Life is your quintessential drug dealer. Crown is a controlling, besotted fool. The cops are just trying to do their jobs. Postmodern life is a time of disillusionment with human nature. In this staging, no one escapes scrutiny.

Such an outstanding production of Porgy and Bess shows what jazz can do to move an audience, achieve aesthetic beauty, and express a complex array of ideas and emotions. A jaded aficionado of the nightclub scene like this reviewer can only wish that the club-goers would think of such things when they jiggle the ice in their drinks, carry on mindless conversations, send text messages, and treat the musicians like Gladiatorial contestants. Jazz should be attended with the respect and awe given to a great opera or concert performance. This production amply proves that such an ideal does not preclude fun and pleasure and the lilting rhythmic pulse of jazz. But it does show that jazz is capable of measuring up to the highest artistic standards.

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