Return to Catfish Row
by Richard Dodds
Stephen Sondheim kicked up a theatrical dust-storm after he read what director Diane Paulus and writer Suzi-Lori Parks intended for a new production of Porgy and Bess, but Audra McDonald, the production's Bess, posted a tweet that Sondheim would be hard-pressed to contradict. "Here's what I think," McDonald wrote, "to quote the greatest musical composer of our time: 'Art isn't easy.'"
To be sure, Porgy and Bess hasn't ever been easy, not from its original 1935 production through subsequent Broadway contractions and opera-house expansions. Whatever you may think of this newest incarnation, launching its tour at the Golden Gate Theatre following a Broadway run, it will not be the final word. Not even George Gershwin probably knew what a definitive production of Porgy and Bess was supposed to look like.
This new edition, supposedly adapted to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences, feels pretty much like, well, Porgy and Bess. True, much of the recitative has been replaced with dialogue, reshaped some by Parks, but the process of removing recitative began as early as the 1942 Broadway revival, which opera companies years later would restore. But if the recitative was considered a barrier between audiences and the material, the considerable size of both opera and Broadway revivals hindered the ability of the Gershwin estate to more widely market its precious asset. (For the record, this production is officially billed as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, which acknowledges Ira Gershwin's contributions, but not those of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward; don't get Sondheim started on that .)
The reduced cast size is most noticeable, predictably, in the powerful moans and exaltations of Gershwin's choral compositions. But the story, the characters, the music, the lyrics, and the fundamental daring of the show can still pull you into a world that is both distant and familiar. A key component in achieving this falls to the actors playing the central characters, and this production delivers.
Nathaniel Stampley creates a beautifully sung Porgy of heartbreaking humanity and determination. As Bess, a woman of divided desires, Alicia Hall Moran is as fiery as the red dress that sets her apart from her neighbors, while also conveying dangerous vulnerabilities. Those vulnerabilities are, simply put, sex and drugs. Providing the former is the rawly sensual, definitely frightening Crown that Alvin Crawford creates. The latter comes in the form of "happy dust" peddled by the greasily urbane Sporting Life, presented in somewhat tempered tones by Kingsley Leggs. Danielle Lee Greaves, as Mariah, powerfully portrays the moral anchor of Catfish Row.
Paulus' staging is efficient without removing room for a heartbeat, and the production occasionally breaks out into an Afro-Fosse kind of choreography by Ronald K. Brown. Unfortunately, Riccardo Hernandez's scenic design is as interesting as a wall of plywood panels – which is basically all it is. But fortunately, and with a cast of this ability, Porgy and Bess retains the power to create its own world rooted in a distinctly American vernacular filtered through musical genius.
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess will run through Dec. 8 at the Golden Gate Theater. Tickets are $40-$210. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to shnsf.com.