Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Gorgeous, Gorgeous, Gorgeous voices in “Porgy and Bess” and some diction problems

Alicia Hall Moran and Kingsley Leggs in Porgy and Bess (photo by Michael J. Lutch)

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Starring Alicia Hall Moran, Nathaniel Stampley, Alvin Crawford, Kingsley Leggs
Through June 29

The touring production of Porgy and Bess is at The 5th Avenue Theatre now and if you have never, like me, seen it before, you owe yourself a trip to see this production. The singers are, without fail, completely gorgeous to listen to. Every song and every singer.

The only thing I’d suggest is to prepare by looking online for song lyrics because whether it is the singers’ diction (not that likely), the bounce in the 5th Avenue, a sound mixing issue, an over-loud orchestra – which also sounds great, but needn’t be quite that loud, it will be hard to understand some of the songs and some of the singers. However, there is no issue with understanding what the story is. That comes in loud and clear, too.

This operatic classic musical is the story of people living in (fictional) Catfish Row near Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a poor neighborhood with hard-working fishermen, women who are used to men living and playing hard, and scruffy underworld characters that prey on those who are vulnerable. Bess (Alicia Hall Moran) starts out as a hard-bitten prostitute who wants fame and bright city lights and falls for tough men like Crown (Alvin Crawford). Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs) wants to take her to New York City where he thinks both of them can get rich.

When Crown kills a man and has to run, Bess is taken in by the cripple Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley) and finds the heart of gold to her liking. She does her best to reform and fit in to simple town life, but when Crown reappears, she reacts like she’s been addicted. Crown and Porgy fight to the death, but that doesn’t end the threats to Bess’ choice of family life or glitz.

Stampley is simply stunning in his portrayal. He is twisted below the waist, but straight and pure of heart. Moran matches him well though I would have wished a little more initial reluctance or desperation from her toward his rescue.

The set is ugly, though it’s probably called for, but its unrelenting wallness could have been broken with some levels. I suppose a solid ugly wall travels well.

The movement aspect is terrific, with choreography credited to Ronald K. Brown. It was not just present in “dances” but also in moments of coordinated moves by cast members and even individual moments. There was an awkward-interesting dance movement in bending down and picking something up. There were coordinated steps as people entered and left the stage. It contributed to a cohesive and visually stimulating whole. Even scene changes were choreographed.

This is much more an opera than a musical. Even songs you are familiar with (Summertime, Bess, You Is My Woman Now) feel woven in rather than strictly set off by silence-song-silence. There are fewer places where applause feels called for, though not from lack of appreciation.

Also, it is bittersweet to recognize that much talent with all but two cast members people of color who have to fight so hard to display their talent on major stages. Also ironic is the difficult road the opera/operetta had to climb to be accepted by both people of color, for being written by white folk, and theater people, for being about people they didn’t think belonged on stage.

I will guess that ticket sales are not nearly as easy to make for this as for Spamalot, and though it won’t have the laughs, it will make your spirit soar.

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