City Pages: Beauty and heartbreak live side by side in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Ed Huyck, City Pages 3/26/14

Put aside the complex history, the questions of racial stereotypes, and the altered nature of the piece for a moment, and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is a gorgeous night of music.
Audiences familiar with the repeated pop earworms of modern musicals get an immersive auditory experience composed by a 20th-century American master. The jazz-influenced score offers tremendous rewards that constantly work in concert with the tough story presented on stage.
The touring production in town this week at the Ordway brings along the recent Broadway staging and a strong cast of performers who breathe life into every nook and cranny of the stage.
The story centers on the African American community on Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C., in the 1930s. It’s a tight-knit community, but one that still has its divisions. One of those involves Bess, whose drunken and drug-addicted ways keep her isolated from the rest of the women.
A murder changes that. Her man, Crown, goes into hiding. She takes up with Porgy, a crippled man whose disability has also left him somewhat isolated. As they fall in love, outside elements threaten to stop them, including the lure of the big city (brought to life by “visiting” New Yorker Sporting Life) and the possible return of Crown.
The musical is as much about the rhythms of life in the community as it is the central love affair. We see the characters working and playing, though always keeping a cautious eye on the forces that could change things in a moment, from a storm coming off the Atlantic to the white policemen investigating the murder.
This Tony-winning version compresses the action and features a rewritten book from the original libretto by Suzan-Lori Parks. Parks walks a fine line here, working to retain the original rhythms of the opera while softening some of the stereotypes and allowing the characters to live on their own.
The company does much to aid in that effort, filling out the sketched creations with plenty of life and depth. It doesn’t hurt to have George Gershwin music (and Ira Gershwin lyrics) to build that tapestry. There are some remarkable standout moments here, from the opening blue notes of “Summertime” to the gorgeous elegy of “My Man’s Gone Now” to the bouncy celebration of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran lead the cast as Porgy and Bess, but there are strong performances throughout, including Denisha Ballew as grieving widow Serena and Kingsley Leggs as the slick and destructive Sporting Life.
See the full City Pages ‘Dressing Room’ Blog article here.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess at the Ordway March 25-30. Tickets start at $36. Purchase here.

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