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May 20, 2011

Gershwin's genre-bending clssic comes to life

“Summertime an’ the livin’ is easy…” The famous line, sung by a bevy of accomplished musicians--from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin, originally comes from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, now showing at Court Theater. Originally a novel by Dubose Heyward, Porgy and Bess was transformed into what Gershwin himself called a ‘folk opera’ by Heyward, his wife Deborah, George Gershwin, and Gershwin’s older brother Ira. When Porgy debuted in 1935, opera purists dismissed it for its obvious jazz influences, and black musicians admonished it for its characterizations of rural African American life.

The play inevitably begs the question: Is it a compelling depiction of rural 1920s African American life or a patronizing encapsulation of the worst of African American stereotypes?

Thankfully, Court Theatre’s artistic director Charles Newell make these questions obsolete, in his rendering of Porgy and Bess . The wrenching performances, minimalist staging, and virtuosity of Gershwin’s music cover up most of the holes.

Set in the fictional waterside tenement Catfish in Charleston, South Carolina, Porgy and Bess tells the story of a crippled beggar, Porgy (Todd M. Kryger), and his undying love for Bess (Alexis J. Rogers), a wayward woman with a habit for dope and bad men.

Because Porgy and Bess is so genre-defiant, interpretations of the piece tend to vary wildly. Given Abelson Auditorium’s small, 250 seat setting, Court Theatre decided to go sparse and minimal with their interpretation and this works to great effect. Everything is stripped to its essence, from costume designer Jacqueline Firkin’s simple, loose and free flowing variations of white on the men and women, to the musicians (six in total stripped down from a score originally intended for a symphony orchestra). All the actors are miced, but the amplification is rarely needed. Restraint and simplicity is the recurring aesthetic motif.

The minimalist aesthetic does not extend to the acting, however. The two leads in particular give stellar performances. Charles Newell and musical director Doug Peck made the choice to use actors who could sing as opposed to singers that can act. By and large, it’s an effective decision, bringing emotional resonance and power to the often melodramatic material. Kryger is particularly effective as the polio-stricken Porgy. He brings dignity to a character that could very easily have drawn condescension from the audience. And considering the fact that Kryger’s mobility is confined to a stool and crutches for most of the play, his ability to sing so robustly is all the more remarkable.

Rogers is also formidable in her own right. With her petite stature and curvy figure, reminiscent of television star Chandra Wilson (best known as Grey’s Anatomy’s Miranda Bailey, and who incidentally, has a history in musical theatre), Roger brings vigor and intensity to Bess, who’s only a one-dimensional temptress on paper. Her voice is limber, at times deep and woeful like a jazz singer and other times remarkably ethereal revealing her classical training. Other notable performances include Sean Blake as Sporting Life, who sings with the nasal intonations and vaguely reptilian motions that befit a petty drug dealer. Bethany Thomas also gives a tour de force performance as Serena, a bereaved widow, in the play’s most powerful scene. Clutching her husband’s dead body to her chest, Thomas wails out the high notes in “My Man’s Gone Now,” and absolutely nails the challenging glissando towards the end of the piece.

Some of the ensemble actors, most noticeably Harriet Nzinga Plumpp, who plays Clara, are weaker vocally. Plumpp’s diction on “Summertime” could be better; when she sings the higher notes, the brightness of her vowels belies her musical theatre background.

However, the many elements of the play come together to create an effective whole: The ensemble cast does a wonderful job, musical transitions are seamless, the few moments of dialogue in the play are integrated well, and most importantly, the musical genius of Gershwin gets the recognition it deserves.

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