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Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess  
a stage review  
by Jeanne Powell  

This current New York production of "Porgy and Bess" features a superbly talented cast of singers and dancers, performing Gershwin’s timeless melodies with skill and enthusiasm.

“Porgy and Bess” is touring the country with a cast of almost thirty. The musical is backed by a 23-piece orchestra. Diane Paulus adapted the Gershwin opera for the Broadway stage with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre Murray. What started as a four-hour opera has been condensed into a musical of two and one-half hours.

Nathaniel Stampley is Porgy, a beggar with a twisted leg. His wayward love, Bess, is played by Alicia Hall Moran. Community healer and matriarch Mariah is recreated by Danielle Lee Greaves. The detestable character of Sporting Life is portrayed engagingly by Kingsley Leggs. Street vendors are Sarita Rachelle Lilly, Chauncey Packer and Dwelvan David. The gambler Crown, who kills a man and who comes after Bess before he rehabilitates himself, is portrayed by Alvin Crawford.

When “Porgy and Bess” had its premiere on the Broadway stage in 1935, it was billed as the first great American opera. Musician and lyricist George Gershwin read the 1925 novel “Porgy” written by DuBose Heyward, and wanted to collaborate on an adaptation for the stage. The collaboration was historic in that it featured an African American cast of classically trained singers, considered revolutionary at the time.

Since that period the Heyward-Gershwin collaboration has gained in popularity and critical recognition. Although this “American folk opera” had a rocky start in 1935, “Porgy and Bess” became an artistic triumph in 1976 when it was performed by the Houston Grand Opera using Gershwin’s complete musical score.

Life on Catfish Row for African Americans is pictured distinctly; work is hard and profits are slim. A strong sense of community and cultural richness are positive factors in determining the spirit of the characters. The fictitious setting is said to be based on the name Cabbage Row from Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1920s, where the distinctive Gullah culture existed in abundance. Novelist Heyward moved the location to a community by the sea.

 Male characters are employed as commercial fishers, stevedores, field hands and construction workers. Female characters work as cooks, laundry women and seamstresses. Both genders find work as vendors of food products hawked through the streets – strawberries, honey, freshly caught shellfish. The setting is not unlike that of many blue-collar subcultures during the same period, with one exception –  African Americans were not allowed to live outside their impoverished neighborhood.

What sets this musical revival apart from others, in addition to its origins in an historic collaboration between committed novelist and a brilliant musician/lyricist, is the continuing popularity of its songs after all this time: “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” “I Loves You Porgy” and “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing.”

Excellent supporting staff include choreographer Ronald K. Brown and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez, as well as costume designer Esosa.

Each version of “Porgy and Bess” is different, whether stage play or film, based on the cultural attitudes of the decade during which it appears. While the politics of “Porgy and Bess” were debated by historic figures such as William E. B. DuBois, Lorraine Hansberry and especially James Baldwin — in no small part because DuBose Heyward was white and his characters from 1925 were not — the fact is that the music of George and Ira Gershwin still captures the hearts of audiences.

And the  audience clearly loved hearing Gershwin’s lively songs performed by a cast with great voices. An enjoyable slice from early 20th century stage musicals.