Thursday, January 18, 2018
Stage

Review: Update adds depth to divine 'Porgy and Bess'

The infectious, familiar tunes of Porgy and Bess could have been reason enough to see the new touring production that opened in Tampa on Tuesday night.

But the creative team that updated this American classic for the Broadway stage has made it even richer, more intimate, more compelling of an experience. Truly, this is music made flesh.

The modest tweaks adapted into the story by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks really work. Similarly, music adapter Diedre L. Murray has introduced small changes — some vocal bebop riffs in the middle of It Ain't Necessarily So, for example — that keep the inimitable harmonies of George Gershwin intact, while her orchestral arrangements provide just the right support for the actors onstage. Choreographer Ronald K. Brown's dance sequences seem divinely inspired, a living legacy of African communal prayers and celebrations adapted to American soil.

It's all quite an achievement for director Diane Paulus, leader of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, where the production originated. From there the show moved to Broadway, where it won the 2012 Tony award for best revival of a musical.

I didn't see the original cast in New York, but it would be hard to imagine more fully realized characters than those portrayed by these touring actors.

Nathaniel Stampley, as Porgy, brings both dignity and determination to the role. "I was born a cripple. God made me to be lonely," he says early on. Those words aren't in the original book, but they bring dramatic context to the joy he finds when he and Bess become a couple. Faced with the prospect of losing her, he does not grovel; he tells his emotionally damaged lover that she must choose her own way. She stays. But when fear and temptation cause her to leave again, he ignores the advice of his neighbors and follows her, sure that love will find the way.

Alicia Hall Moran is both attractive and vulnerable as Bess, the most beautiful woman on stage. In the beginning, Bess is shunned by the women of Catfish Row for her seductive ways, open drinking and use of "happy dust." But when fate leads her to depend upon Porgy, whom she makes giddily happy and whom she comes to love, the neighbors fully accept her. "I want you to feel welcome," says Mariah, the matriarchal protector of the neighborhood.

The original Porgy and Bess, conceived and written by white people nearly 80 years ago, has sometimes been criticized for its reliance on racial stereotypes instead of character development. Parks' adaptations were designed to make the characters more fully dimensional. One sign of her success comes in the audience's audible reaction to Bess in the penultimate scene, when she is tested by doubt and her old addictions.

Dialect, too, has been given a fresh treatment in this production. The original libretto spelled every word phonetically, an approximation of how white writers heard the Gullah accents of black people on the South Carolina coast. In Parks' updated script, she keeps the phrasing congruent with African-American idiom, but she spells everything in standard American English. Then, with the help of dialect coaches, the actors are allowed to articulate the words as they see fit. The results sound free and genuine, rather than condescending.

Everything on stage tells us more about who these people are. The simple set — an abstract two-dimensional background of windows and walls — reflects attention back to the characters, whose costumes and props (baskets, food crates, wash basins, ladder-back chairs and such) portray a community of hard working people. The supple lighting is especially effective in reinforcing the drama. During the ritual of Christian prayer and African dance that occurs around the body of a dead neighbor, the shadows cast by the dancers' arms upon the rear wall push the scene into another dimension.

The supporting cast is as strong as the leads.

Glowering Alvin Crawford is a tower of muscular menace as Crown, Bess' abusive former lover. (He does an amusing curtsy during the curtain call, though, that reminds us of the difference between character and actor.) Kingsley Leggs, as the strutting, drug-peddling Sportin' Life, has the sneaky moves of a snake in Eden, while his facial expressions reveal his ability to be present in any situation. Denisha Ballew, as the newly widowed Serena, will break your heart in her one vocal solo, My Man's Gone Now. David Hughey is the good-looking Jake, owner of a fishing boat and the leading man of the community. Sumaya Ali plays his young wife Clara, who opens the show by singing Summertime to her infant son; the playful look she gives the baby when she sings the line "and your mama's good-lookin' " is perfect.

Perhaps the best adaptation of the show occurs in the final song, I'm On My Way. Most recorded renditions of this song are uniformly resolute and operatic in scale. Here Porgy begins his version in a soft solo. The body language on stage reveals the tension between himself and his neighbors, who at first cannot accept his decision to follow after Bess. The music builds only when they relent, revealing that Porgy and Bess is not just a story about love. It is also a celebration of community.

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