Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

‘Porgy and Bess’ is funkier, brassier, easily appreciated

Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran portray the title roles in “Porgy and Bess.” Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

Kingsley Legg, in striped suit as Sportin’ Life, is featured in “Porgy and Bess.” Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

 

Woody’s Rating: ★★★★★

“Porgy and Bess” debuted in 1935 to mixed reviews and scattered cries of racism.

It took until 1976 for the controversial jazz-laced, four-hour folk opera to win legitimacy via a Houston staging, and until 2011 for a truncated form, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” to become a New York smash and win a Tony.

That more easily appreciated two-act Broadway version now is embedded at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco through Dec. 8.

It’s a must-see for anyone who gets off on George Gershwin’s music.Or brother Ira’s lyrics.

Or re-hearing classics such as “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” and “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.”

Or seeing the melodramatic, larger-than-life, tragic characters operas thrive on.

The difference between the 2009 version presented by the San Francisco Opera and this compressed one becomes obvious with the first notes of the overture.

This SHN offering is brassier, funkier.

It swings more.

The vivifying, I suspect, owes a thank-you to slice-‘n’-dice tactics employed by Diedre L. Murray, who adapted the music; Suzan-Lori Parks, who adjusted the book; and Diane Paulus, the director (who won a Tony for “Pippin” and also is responsible for the new Cirque du Soleil show that’s now in San Francisco).

Some still may consider “Porgy” a stereotypical portrait of impoverished blacks that dwells on drugs, knife-fights and killing.

As I watched, I mulled if a truly modernized version set in Harlem or Watts would spur the usual outsized outrage from Al Sharpton or Jessie Jackson. The fallout would be akin to the reaction when Al Jolson purportedly wanted to play Porgy in blackface.

The now-familiar storyline highlights disabled beggar Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), who liberates Bess (Alicia Hall Moran) from a life of sex and addiction. She’s pursued, however, by her combative ex-lover Crown (Alvin Crawford) and Sportin’ Life (Kingsley Leggs), a dealer who continually tempts her with “happy dust” (cocaine).

Bess, who’s initially ridiculed as “a liquor-guzzling slut,” tries overhauling her life. It’s just not that simple in the fictitious all-black Catfish Row slum of Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1930s.

Drugs are too easy to come by; sexism is rampant.

“These gals,” says Sportin’ Life, “ain’t never gonna understand the ways of us menfolk.

The performers’ voices generally are strong — principally Alicia Hall Moran on “I Loves You, Porgy” (and throughout), Kingsley Leggs on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon,” and David Hughey as Nate on “It Takes a Long Pull.”

The 23-piece orchestra behind them is buoyant, even though only three of its instrumentalists were plucked from the Broadway production.

George Gershwin had visited the James Island Gullah community that preserved its African musical traditions, and injected some of it into “Porgy.”

He also used his own interpretations of spirituals, work songs, blues, arias and recitatives — and borrowed from the liturgical music of his Jewish culture, particularly for “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”Other tunes worthy of mention are a lovely, lush duet, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and a rare comedic moment via “I Hates Your Struttin’ Style.”

Both set and props enhance the atmosphere. Their minimalism allows appropriate costuming by ESosa to transport theatergoers quickly into the bigoted Southern landscape.

Often sensual, sexual choreography by Ronald K. Brown helps, too. He leans on Gullah movements but contrasts those with more traditional musical comedy modes.Flaws? Only one jumps out.

Ethnic dialect makes it tough sometimes to understand what’s being said or sung.

But that’s an infrequent, minor irritation.

More lofty criticism was aimed at the producers (who number in double digits) by composer Stephen Sondheim — for being arrogant and depreciating the original creators’ intentions.

He especially bemoaned the new production deemphasizing DuBose Heyward, who co-wrote the lyrics with Ira and created a libretto from his own novel and play, “Porgy.”

But the opening night crowd here — which, unlike the usual San Francisco audience, was layered equally with whites and blacks, straights and gays, young and old — didn’t seem to care about anything other than enjoying what was on stage.

Nor, in the long run, did I.

“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical” runs at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St. (at 6th and Market), San Francisco, through Dec. 8. Night performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Matinees, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $40 to $210. Information: (888) 746-1799 or shnsf.com.

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