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Review: “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”

Porgy and Bess National TourAlvin Crawford, center, as Crown, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess (in red) and Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy (with beard, right) in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Photos by Michael J. Lutch

A new Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess has come to the Winspear Opera House, trailing Tony Awards and controversy. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the controversy’s not that important. The question is whether this revival is any good.

KERA radio review:

Online review:

Let’s call this Porgy and Bess the Revenge of Broadway. Understandably, opera purists hate this new treatment of George Gerswhin’s classic of African-Americans struggling on Catfish Row in Charleston in the 1930s. If you know only the three-and-a half hour, totally sung-through, operatic version, it can be a bit of a shock. These familiar characters suddenly start to talk. And then the entire show speeds by a whole hour shorter, partly because all that talk has replaced the stem-winding recitative. Plus, there’s the music. A Broadway pit band is smaller, sometimes brassier, sometimes shriller, than a full-throated opera orchestra.

That’s all true. And it’s not hard to sympathize with composer Stephen Sondheim’s objections, which he made vehemently public in The New York Times before this current touring adaptation even opened on Broadway. Sondheim feels DuBose Heyward’s original lyrics are superb, some of the finest in American music. So even the official, trademarked name of this new version offends him. It highlights the box-office draw of the Gershwin name, ignoring Heyward’s contributions. Talk about Broadway’s crass commercialism, there it is in the official, five-word title: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

But listen. The darn thing still works.

Porgy National Tour 2Nathaniel Stampley (above, right) is a handsome and engaging Porgy. He projects the kind of noble, moral strength that makes Porgy believable. It also makes Bess’ love for a disabled man believable. And then there’s Stampley’s singing — he has a limber, golden baritone not a bass, as is traditional.

Opera fans like to point out it was the Houston Grand Opera’s revival in 1976 of the complete score that staked the claim that Porgy and Bess is a great opera, even The Great American Grand Opera. And we know Gershwin had long studied and aimed for serious acceptance. But I don’t see the operatic treatment as the show’s ultimate redemption, its final elevation into ‘real’ art — as if shabby, commercial Broadway musicals should bow before their betters. Porgy and Bess opened in a Broadway house in 1935, with Gershwin himself overseeing the trims. Why did it open on Broadway if it was supposed to be a ‘folk opera’ (a term Gershwin agreed to, he didn’t coin)? Because Broadway could give Porgy what the Metropolitan Opera couldn’t: a run longer than four performances and an almost all-black, professionally-trained cast. What’s more, Porgy and Bess was revived several times in the ’40s and ’50s — always as a Broadway musical — and, in fact, the 1953 Broadway revival was the first to restore some of the trimmed music.

In short, opera folks were late claiming this show. That the ‘uncut’ show is somehow more authentic, representing Gershwin’s real intentions and therefore is the best possible version is an argument easily undermined: Just consider all of those fat, tedious versions of films released every year as ‘director’s cuts’ on DVDs. So yes, this version finds Broadway re-claiming the show, not without some justice and not without the kinds of commercial calculations that are built into the Broadway industry. Yet many of the changes — beyond the ones enumerated above — are the kind that opera directors often make without blinking an eye. Porgy doesn’t have a goat cart now, for instance. Instead, he has a twisted leg and a crutch. We’re not witnessing a pathetically hopeless man here.

I’m not saying Porgy and Bess isn’t an opera, can’t be an opera, that it rightly belongs only to Broadway. I am saying these two forms do not exclude each other, as this current tour attests with its mix of vocal styles. Alicia Hall Moran plays a somewhat chilly Bess, but she has a plangent, operatic voice, one of the purest in the company, along with Sumayya Ali as Clara. Close your eyes during Moran’s melting “I Love You Porgy”or Ali’s “Summertime,” and it’s plain these voices could easily belong in an opera house — like, well, the Winspear.

Sondheim himself once said the only real difference between opera and Broadway is where the show’s done. Broadway is a great American art form, and there’s no shame about re-writing or revising works for a new audience. This is one of the things Broadway does (and opera does too, for that matter, though not as often). The only question is whether it’s done well or badly. Director Diane Paulus (Pippin), adapter Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog), lighting designer Christopher Akerlind (with his looming shadows), indeed, the whole production team – they’ve done well with an excellent cast, including the towering Alvin Crawford as the bully Crown and Kingsley Leggs as a more pugnacious, less comic Sportin’ Life.

Frankly, his is a Sportin’ Life I prefer. It makes Bess’ decision to follow him at the end seem more a calculation about her survival and less because Bess is seduced by Sportin’ Life and his drugs. This means she’s not a “liquor-guzzling slut,” she’s not what Sportin’ Life always thought she was. She may not be the most noble creature, but she’s not completely depraved, either. And that makes Porgy’s decision to follow her not so pathetically high-minded and hopeless. She does love him, she could be won back — if a real alternative for survival is offered her.

Simply put: This is a seriously streamlined but still sensuous, powerful and beautifully sung show, well thought-out in its changes. So if someone tells you, Porgy and Bess is not worth seeing unless it’s the three-and-a-half hour opera, then tell them what Sportin’ Life says.

It ain’t necessarily so.


  • Suzanne Calvin

    Speaking as someone from that other world (opera), I cannot imagine anyone saying that “Porgy and Bess isn’t worth seeing unless it’s the opera,” so long as it retains the beauty and core truthfulness of the original. Interestingly, our worlds will collide again in February when Director Diane Paulus’ production of “Death and the Powers” is presented by the Dallas Opera in that very same venue. And, yes, there are those who say opera and science fiction make strange bedfellows, too. But you are correct in saying, if it works, it works!

    • JeromeWeeks

      There have been several reviews — in New York and here, as well — that have dismissed this production. If it has any value at all, the argument goes, it’s because there are glimmers of the opera still in it and perhaps it will lead listeners to the opera version. I refuse to accept the one art form is somehow nobler or purer than the other, as if financial concerns or audience pandering didn’t exist in the opera world and because it exists in Broadway’s commercial industry, that makes the Broadway musical an essentially inferior form.

      As for sci fi and opera, I don’t understand any perceived conflict. If most of Wagner doesn’t qualify as sci-fi/fantasy, then I’m not sure what would. I mean, in Lohengrin, a man turns into a swan, for chrissakes.